GOVERNMENT OF INDIA
DEPARTMENT OF ARCHAEOLOGY
THE WISDOM OF THE EAST SERIES
Edited by J. L. CRANMER-BYNG, M.C.
L. P. ELWELL-SUTTON, B.A.
Lecturer in. Persian,
University of Edinburgh,
John Murray, Albemarle Street.
First Edition . . • ^954
LIBRARY, NLW JluHL
Aoo, No. 2.30/.
Printed in Great Britain by Butler & Tanner Ltd,.,Trome and London
and Published by John Murray (PubllsHers) Ltd.
I Introduction .
\ I. The Fleeting World
1 2 , Practical Wisdom .
[^13. Foresight and Self-reliance
I ' 4. Virtue Its Own Reward
I 5. Misers and Skinflints
; 6 . The Folly of Boasting .
; \ 7. Too Many Cooks . . .
: ;« 8. Honesty and Friendship .
I 9. Man’s True Worth
' ** Bibliography ,
The object of the Editor of this series is a very definite one. He
desires above all things that these books shall be the ambassadors of
good-will between East and West. He hopes that they will con-
tribute to a fuller knowledge of the great cultural heritage of the East,
for only through real understanding will the West be able to appreciate
the underlying problems and aspirations of Asia to-day. He is
confident that a deeper knowledge of the great ideals and lofty
philosophy of Eastern thought will help to a revival of that true
spirit of charity which neither despises nor fears the nations of another
creed and colour.
J. L. CRANMER-BYNG.
so , Albemaklb Street,
Popular folk-lore has long since emerged from the contempt in
which it was formerly held by men of letters. Even in the East,
where classical Hterary standards still hold universal sway, the
more progressive writers are beginning to explore the wealth
hidden in this field and to realize that the pithy and pungent
mode of expression of the common people, their vividness and
directness of imagination, can add something to an author’s work
that he can never get from imitation of the old models.
Proverbs contain tlie essence of this popular wisdom, and even
the small collection presented in this book is sufficient to paint
a hvely picture of Persian Hfe and character. It is of course a
Persia that is receding, if not into the past, at any rate into the
background. In the cities and big towns a new industriahzed
life is growing up that wdl have to develop its own standards
of conduct, and in wliich some of the older virtues and vices will
doubtless be lost. But even here the new ideas wiU have to be
grafted on to the accumulated past, and for a proper understand-
ing of the Persia of to-day, we must have an insight into the
Persia out of which it is growing.
Our proverbs show us a people hving close to the earth.
There is much accurate observation of nature — of the weather,
the seasons, wild life. It is, however, a settled village life that we
see rather than the nomadic hfe of the tribes. Tribal lore seems
to have contributed little to Persian proverbial wisdom, though
doubtless its absence is due to the isolation and inaccessibility of
the tribes rather than their failure to crystalhze their experience
into proverbial form. But the proverbs we have are those of
people living in houses ; they deal with household furniture and
Utensils, with household occupations, cleaning, sleeping, cooking,
sewing. There is much of family and domestic life — relations
with husbands and wives, neighbours, shopkeepers, the public
baths, births, deaths and marriages, and so on. Among the
occupations referred to we find shepherds, camel-drivers, farmers,
woodcutters, charcoal-burners, potters, carpenters, millers, dyers,
tailors, washermen and barbers. The busy life of the bazaar is
revealed, with its haggling traders, crafty merchants and business
transactions. The personalities of community life arc met, the
village headman, the molla, the qazi, the teacher and the doctor ;
their world is organized, there is law, authority, rehgion. With
the outside world indeed there is Httle contact. Travel is looked
on with distaste, the sea with horror. Kings and princes, or the
heroes and heroines of Hterature, figure from time to time, but
in a rather remote way. It is the common man, the peasant or
villager, who is the central figure, and it is his problems that are
He finds himself in an insecure and chancy world, in which a
man must have patience and a sense of humour if he is to survive.
He is urged to be cautious but persevering, self-reliant and
honest. Generosity, hospitaHty, gratitude and wisdom arc the
virtues encouraged, trickery, greed, miserliness, injustice, vanity
and selfishness the vices, evidently all too common, to be de-
plored. The ideal man of the proverbs has tlie qualities of the
Zoroastrian hero — ^pure speech, pure vision, pure deeds —
tempered by the practical wisdom that stems from centuries of
hardship and disaster.
Proverbs are still widely used by Persians of aU classes. Persian
speech as a whole is full of picturesque phrases and expressive
idioms, of which the following may serve as a small sample ;
“ My tongue grew hairs ” (I was tired out with talking, giving
advice) ; “ Don’t boil, your milk will go dry ” (said to someone
getting unreasonably angry) ; ofa great uproar, “ A dog couldn’t
have recognized his master,” “ If you had dropped a needle, it
wouldn’t have reached the floor.” To someone who apologizes
for turning his back on you you may reply, “ A flower has
neither back nor front ” ; of an aged man it might be said that
“ when they erected the arch of the sky, he put up half of it
And many would sympathize with the comment on someone’s
illegible handwriting ; “ If you put it in the sun, it would walk.”
It is unfortunately impossible to render in translation the con-
ciseness with which many of these sayings and proverbs are
expressed, still less to give any idea of their rhythm and rhyme.
Something of this may perhaps be sensed from the following
examples, in the original language, of some of the proverbs
quoted later in this book.
Fel'fel rna'bin die 'rizi, besh'kan be'bin di6 'tize.
Don’t judge a pepper-corn by its smallness, crack it and see
how sharp it is. (Page 29.)
Cha'Mr di'vM ekhti'ydri.
Four walls make a free man. (Page 38.)
'Har ke 'fehr-e 'khishast, 'kuse he-'fekr-e 'rishast.
Everybody thinks of himself ; even the thin-beard thinks
of Ins beard. (Page 41.)
Na'khod khor'i ndkas de'hi, 'gandi ko'ni be' sag de'hi.
You don’t eat it yourself nor give it to others ; you let it
go rotten and then give it to the dog. (Page 49.)
'Kur-e bi'nd behtar az bi'nd-e 'hur.
A blmd man who sees is better than a seeing man who is
blind. (Page 57.)
Ta'U ki ' pak ast, die hd'jatash bekhdk ast ?
Gold in its purity need fear nothing from the earth.
The simplicity and directness of these examples is evidence of
their colloquial origin. Most of the proverbs quoted in this
book are in fact colloquial ; whether or not this form is the
oldest (and there is no doubt that a few have a Hterary origin),
it is certainly the most effective. Many have been versified or
given Hterary form by one writer or another ; but even the
most brilHant poets have only succeeded in blurring the vividness
of the original.
In making the present selection the writer has had in mind the
thought that a good proverb should have a certain pungency,
a modicum of wit. There are in Persian, as in all languages,
a great many platitudinous sayings — “ Mankind are members
one of another,” “ True piety consists in serving the people,”
” Obedience is the root of prosperity,” “ Do not put off to-day’s
work till to-morrow,” “ Silence indicates consent,” ” Content-
ment makes a man rich,” “ He who has gold has power,”
“ Envy is a disease for which there is no cure.” Since many
of these ideas have been more wittily expressed in proverbial
form, it has been thought proper to omit them in their natural
state, even though they are in common usage.
Selection has in any case had to be drastic. One of the largest
modem collections, that by Ah Akbar Dehkhoda, contains some
25,000 proverbs, and even that Hst is by no means complete.
Persian proverbs are part of the stream of popular lore and legend
that appears to have begun in India or Central Asia and passed
by degrees through the Middle East to Europe. It is indeed
impossible to draw a hard and fast Hne, otlier than that of
language, between the national folk-lores of tins vast area.
Equivalents, often word for word the same, are found in Urdu,
Persian, Armenian, Kurdish, Arabic, Turkish, and coming
further west, in Greek, Latin and the modem European
languages. In East and West aHke people “ bury the hatchet ”,
they “ lay the axe to the root ”, they ask “ who will bell the
cat ”, they observe that “ dog does not eat dog ”, and they laugh
at “ the pot for calling the kettle black ”. The national differ-
ences He rather in mode of expression or perhaps choice of
imagery, though naturally every community has its own private
sayings based on local legend.
Such, for example, is the exclamation employed, especially
in Isfahan, to express astonishment or wonder : “ We have
journeyed through three hundred and sixty-six valleys, but we
have never yet seen a man with two heads I ” The “ three
hundred and sixty-six valleys ” are supposed to refer to a
desolate waste, some say near Isfahan, others on the way to
Mazandaran, which, the story goes, was once haunted by a
demon with the habit of Hcking the feet of travellers while they
slept and sucking their blood. One night two travellers, an
Isfahan! and a Turk, found themselves stranded in this ill-
omened place. For a while they kept themselves awake by
teUing stories, but eventually diey could keep it up no longer.
Isfahanis, however, are noted for their ingenuity and resourceful-
ness, and this one was no exception. “ I’m a demon myself ! ”
he exclaimed. “ Where’s the demon that can touch me ?
Now, let us He down in opposite directions, you put your feet
under my armpits, and I’U put mine under yours, and then we’ll
be quite safe.” Sure enough, before long the demon smelt
human flesh, and sniffing round the sleeping men, he found a
head at one end and a head at the other. At a loss, he “ bit the
finger of amazement and disappointment” and exclaimed,
“ By God ! I have journeyed through three hundred and sixty-
six valleys, but I have never yet seen a man with two heads ! ”
As will be seen, many of the proverbs quoted in this book are
associated with fables of this kind. There is no telling whether
the stories are the origin of the proverbs or the proverbs of the
stories, and it is indeed quite unprofitable to speculate. It is
certainly true that it is easier to identify the proverbs themselves
than it is to track down the legends that go with them. One
assiduous worker in this field, Amir Qoli Amini, gives the
following account of his difficulties.
“ I had to spend a great deal of my time in company and conversation
with ordinary, illiterate people, and, as they put it, ‘ to give a heart and
take a kidney before I could profit from their invaluable store of
information. But after a time I found that the conversation of a corn-
chandler, a grocer or a ploughman, even though he could not distinguish
a pronoun from a preposition, left a stimulating and indeed disturbing
impression on me that I would never have got from conversation with
an educated man.
“ Often when I asked them questions about proverbs and fables, I
would get such a generous response, they would so lavish on me the
wealth of lore stored in tlieir memories, that I was moved to an extent
that I could never have imagined. The more ample and delightful
their stories were, the more my interest and enthusiasm was aroused.
When a goldsmith told me a particular story, I felt as though he had
freely given me the finest masterpieces of the skilled craft of his two
hands, with all its gold and jewellery.
“ I was not content with craftsmen, but associated as freely as I could
witli servants, cab-drivers and taxi-drivers, and in the same way, when
I weirt into the villages, I lived with the peasants. Whenever the
opportunity offered itself, I at once took out of my pocket my notebook
or some scraps of paper, and began asking questions.
“ ‘ Now, my friend, what do you know about our proverbs ? Tell,
me, what is the original story of the proverb “ An apple thrown into
the air wiU turn a thousand times before it reaches the ground,” or
” Escape may lie between tliis pillar and that ” ? ’
“ Out of every hundred people it usually happened that ninety-nine
claimed ignorance. Fifty per cent could only answer my questions
with a few simple and hackneyed sayings.
1 To converse with warmth and enthusiasm.
“ Is it not surprising that a craftsman or a peasant may know hundreds
of proverbs, and yet, unless the appropriate moment arises and one of
them comes automatically and instinctively to his tongue, he cannot call
to mind half a dozen from the treasury of his subconscious in order to
repeat them to you?”
One does not always meet the difficulties that Mr. Amini
encountered. There are still many — from professional story-
tellers to nurses and grandmothers — who have a wealth of such
fables and legends at the tip of the tongue, and are only too wilHiig
to retail them to anyone patient enough to listen. It is unfor-
tunately true that little enough has been done to commit all this
material to writing. Those who hold it are mostly ilHterate,
and receive and pass it on by word of mouth. Some stories of
course have found their way into collections like the Thousand
and One Nights ; another very famous collection is that known
in India as the Fables of Bidpai, and in Persia and the Middle East
as the Book of Kalile and Demni. Proverbs and traditional
stories are also constantly used by Persian poets and other
writers. Sa'di’s Golestan (Rose-garden) and Bustan (Flower-
garden), anthologies of the wisdom and fable accumulated by
him during his extensive travels, have themselves given currency
to sayings and aphorisms whose originals must date from long
before the thirteenth century in wliich he wrote. The same is
true of the Masnavi or mystical poem of Jalal ad-Din Rumi,
sometimes described as the Persian Koran, and of the works of
poets Hke Jami, Nezami, Attar and Hafez. The Koran itself
and the many Traditions of the Prophet, authentic and other-
wise, are a further source of present-day popular lore.
Some idea of die antiquity of these fables may be gathered
from the fact tliat many of them are to be found among those
attributed to Aesop. Readers of the present work will recog-
nize “The Old Man and Death” (No. CXXII in Thomas
James’s version, page 12 in the present book), “ The Dog and
the Shadow” (No. XXIV and page 26), “The Boasting
Traveller ” (No. CXCV and page 59), “ The Fox and the
Crow ” (No. CLXXXIII and page 67), “ The Ant and the
Grasshopper ” (No. XII and page 70), and “ The Thief and
his Mother ” (No. Cl and page 73) ; there is also a similarity
in theme between the stories on pages 37 and 53, and “ The
Stag in the Oxstall ” (No. LIII) and “ The Miser ” (No. CXCII).
More thorough inquiry would no doubt reveal further similari-
ties, and indeed there is a profitable field of research in a detailed
comparison and correlation of the folk-lore of India, the Middle
East and Europe.
So much for the similarities, the common basis of the pro-
verbial wisdom of the Old World. If there were no more to
it than that there might seem to be little justification for the
study of its manifestations in any particular community. But
in fact, of course, there is a great deal more. There may be a
common stream of ideas, but as they pass through each cultural
area they become changed and transmuted through contact with
and absorption by local character, tradition and custom. Of no
people is this more true than of the Persians, whose capacity for
incorporating and “ Persianizing ” foreign importations in all
fields of thought has become a byword. A study of their pro-
verbs and the folk-lore attached to them will not only give us an
idea of the outside influences to which they have been subjected
in the past, but will also illuminate their ways of thought and
their national characteristics to an extent that perhaps no other
medium can do. The literary classics of die past and the present
will give us the products of the best minds of Persia in poetry,
science, Instory and philosophy ; but these great minds emerged
from a common heritage that has a formative effect on all tiiose
who share it. Only through folk-lore can the outsider hope to
gain even a glimpse of tliis heritage ; yet without a knowledge
of it he cannot begin to understand why Persians — or for the
matter of that, Arabs, Frenchmen or Russians — tbink and behave
as they do.
It is no easy task. Even when all the relevant material has
been collected (and, as we have seen, that process is by no means
complete), we have still the practical problem of idiomatic
translation from a language structurally different from ours.
More significant still, it is a language whose background is
entirely different from that of our own. Even the scenery, the
climate, the wild Hfe — the sources, in fact, from wliich the
images are drawn — are all different ; a loaf of bread means one
thing to us, another tiring to a Persian. Nor are ideas and
images associated in the same way ; in Persia, for instance, the
sun is generally a torment from which one is glad to escape, in
Britahr it is a rare and welcome visitor. The problem becomes
progressively more complex as we move into the sphere of
abstract ideas. We are up against a whole new way of thought,
a whole new culture, and we can only absorb it gradually and by
contact and study over a long period of time, just as a child
gradually absorbs the culture and ways of thought of Iris parents.
The present book has no such ambition. It does not even set
out to give a comprehensive or representative survey of the
proverbs of Persia, but rather to take a few at random, a handful,
as they tliemselves would say, from tlie donkey-load. Many
of them the writer first encountered in conversation and discus-
sion in Persia, tliough the majority are also to be found in one or
other of the Persian pubhcations listed in the first part of the
bibliography. There are, however, a number that do not seem
yet to have made their way into print and, moreover, these
Persian pubhcations are not easily accessible even to scholars.
The writer would prefer to think of the present book not so
much as a fresh contribution to the knowledge of Persian pro-
verbs, as a means of bringing them before the EngHsh-speaking
pubHc for the first time. In defence of its shortcomings of
purpose and of achievement, the writer can only claim that
“ a house is built to the ability of its builder ”, or, as the Arabs
say, “ the gift is the measure of the giver
One final point needs to be made in connexion with the system
used for the spelling of Persian names and words. There is un-
fortunately as yet no accepted system of transliteration for Persian,
as there is for Arabic ; the latter, though commonly used for
Persian, is quite unsuitable to it and in no way represents the
current pronunciation of the Persian language. The system
adopted in the present book is based on that devised by the
writer for his Colloquial Persian in 1941. It may be helpful to
mention that the accent in Persian generally falls on the last
syllable. The only deviations from the “ system ” are names
and words that have become anglicized to an extent that pre-
cludes experiment. Thus one would not wish to interfere with
bazaar, Koran, Avicenna, dervish, kabob, Kabul or Turcoman ;
and for the same reason words like Isfahan, Kurd, Sunnite,
Muhammad, Fatima, Kerbela, Azerbaijan and Turkestan have
been left in their common form.
I. THE FLEETING WORLD
The prouerbs that follow have for convenience been divided, somewhat
arbitrarily, into various groups according to the general topics with which they
deal. It goes ivithout saying that no such division exists in the minds of those
who use them, and it may even be misleading in that it brings into too great
prominence the apparent contradictions always inherent in proverbial lore. In
this fast section we are concerned with the vagaries of fate and the changing
fortunes of life on earth. Sudden disaster and utter destitution have been all
too common features of life in Persia. Of a poor man it might he said that
he has not a sigh to trade for a groan ”, or that “ his pocket is cleaner than
a mollas gaberdine “ Even death ”,for such a man, “ is a wedding
“ the water of his life has been poured into a muslin sieve ”, Death itself is
a common theme. “ His life is like the sun sinking over the mountain ” ;
“ his chin has taken on the smell of the Merciful One ”, And there is a
macabre note of humour in the comment on a man long dead : “ He has worn
out seven shrouds.” In the face of this pessimism it is hardly surprising that
many proverbs urge patience, submission to fate, acceptance of things as they
are, making the best of circumstances — and even an optimistic belief that good
will come out of bad, that every mans life is guided by a lucky star.
In the ant’s house the dew is a flood.
A slight loss is a great one to a poor man.
Let the thief who strikes at the end of the ni^ht strike at its
If bad fortune is in store for us, then let it- come at once.
One hump on top of another.
The story goes that one night a hunchback went into a public bath,
and found a fairy wedding in progress. He at once joined the festivi-
ties, and so entertained the company by Iris comic antics that they took
his hump away from him, and placed it on a shelf. This story spread
round, the town the following day, and another hunchback decided
to profit by his friend’s experience. Unfortunately he omitted to
notice that the gathering of fairies on this occasion was for the purpose
of mourning, and the latter were so incensed at Ihs unseemly behaviour
that, instead of taking his hump away, they fastened the other one on
top of it. The phrase is now used of anyone who, whether through
his own fault or not, finds yet anodier difficulty added to his former
He sheltered from the rain under the drain^^^pipe.
He got out of the well and fell into the pit.
He escaped from the thief s clutches^ and was caught hy the
Three of many proverbs comparable to our own “ He fell out of
the frying pan into the fire.”
You haven t the power to give me a donkey, hut you^re quite clever
enough to kill me.
According to a Bakhtiyari tale, a woodcutter was plodding along
with a heavy load on Iris back. At length he dropped it on the
ground, and, throwing hitnself weardy down, began to bewail his
fate. “ O God,” he cried, “ either send me a donkey or send me
deatli!” Just at that moment a huge boulder came roUhig down the
mountain-side and landed a few feet from him. “ So ! ” he exclaimed
in fear and anger, “You haven’t the power to give me a donkey,
but you’re quite clever enough to kiU me ! ” A similar story is to be
found in Aesop and Lafontaine. The proverb, like the following one,
is used by Persians when someone has hoped for good and receives
Of all the prophets you would choose Jerjis.
Jerjis is the Oriental counterpart to the Christian St. George. One
day a mouse was caught by a cat, and finding itself held tightly
THE FLEETING WORLD
between the creature’s teeth, bethought himself of a trick. “ O most
noble cat,” he cried, “ O lion of courage and bravery, I am fearful for
your fate in the next world if you shed my blood unlawfully. I urge
you dierefore, before you swallow me, to pronounce the name of one
of the prophets, so that you may be absolved of all guilt.” The cat,
however, was a wily one, and saw through the mouse’s plan ; if he
were to open his mouth to speak, the mouse would escape. But by
pronouncing the name “Jerjis”, he was able not only to keep his
teeth clenched, but to thrust them right through the mouse’s body.
Hence the latter’s woeful exclamation.
Stones rcfin upon a broken door.
Wherever there is a stone, a lame foot will find it.
Ifs the lame foot that has the tight shoe.
In other words, “ It never rams but it pours.”
No colour is deeper than black.
Things couldn’t be any worse.
When water covers the head, a hundred fathoms are as one.
That is to say, “ As well be hung for a sheep as a lamb.” Compare
the following :
The drowning man is not troubled by rain.
This proverb is found in Arabic, Turkish and Armenian as well as
Persian, and is used by Sa'di in several places.
A stick has two ends.
Every affair may turn out well or badly.
If fortune turns against you, even the horse in the stable becomes
If fortune turns against you, even jelly breaks your tooth.
Even a melon>'Seed may come between husband and wife.
A min or incident may change the course of desthiy.
Even the handsome Ahmad caught smalUpox.
No one is safe from the changes and chances of fate.
The arrow that has left the bow never returns.
Words once spoken caimot be recalled.
He who puffs at the lamp of God will singe his beard,
It is no use strivmg against the decrees of God. This proverb is
based on a passage in the Koran (Ixi. 8), and is also found in the
Masnavi of Jalal ad-Din Rumi and the mystical poetry of Sana'i.
God drives the vessel where he will, no matter how the captain
A verse from the Golestan of Sa‘di.
Death is a camel that lies down at every door.
When its time has arrived, the prey comes to the hunter.
A verse from Jami, to be compared with the following verse from
Naser-e IChosrou : “ When the camel is about to die, it comes to
the edge of the well.”
Jump once, little locust, jump twice, but the third time you^ll be
Don’t tempt providence too often. This proverb occurs in the
middle of a rather lengthy story concerning a carpenter who, dirough
a lucky guess, discovered the princess’s lost rmg and found himself
THE FLEETING WOULD
appointed, as the king’s fortune-teller. He bluffed his way success-
fully through the next problem that he had to solve, and then one
day he had to accompany the king on a hunting expedition. On
the way a locust hopped on to the king’s saddle ; he flicked it away,
but it jumped back again. The same thing happened again, and the
third time the khig grabbed it in his hand, and keeping his fist clenched
sent for the fortune-teller, who was at the back of the cavalcade.
“ What have I got in my hand ? ” he asked. The fortune-teller,
terrified out of his wits, could only think of his two previous lucky
escapes, and cried out, “Jump once, little locust, jump twice, but the
third time you’ll be caught.” The king was amazed at his powers,
and lavished rewards upon liim. Nevertheless the experience was too
much for the humble carpenter, who found some pretext to leave the
court, and escaped to a distant land, never to return.
Death comes once and sorrow hut once.
Said to someone who continues to lament over past disasters, even
when the excuse for it is past.
Patience is the key to all things.
In Arabic there is a similar proverb : “ Patience is the key to
Patience is hitter, hut its fruit is sweet.
This proverb is used several times by Sa'di.
Let the world after death he ocean or rill.
Let the world after death he a mosque or a synagogue.
It will all be the same in a hundred years.
Grief only brings more loss to your purse.
It’s no use crying over spilt milk.
Let US think of tomorrow when tomorrow comes.
Don’t meet troubles half-way. This is the first half of a verse from
Nezami, which continues ; “ It is far better to enjoy ourselves
Woman is a torment, hut, O Goi, let no home he without
Woman is a torment, hut she is worth buying with your life.
Blessings on the first gravemhher !
Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know. In
a certain city a thief made a practice of stealing the winding-sheets
from the graves of die newly-buried dead. The outraged populace
complained to the governor, who after lengthy investigations caught
the diief and consigned him to prison. But he was succeeded by
another tliief who not only stole the shrouds but treated the bodies
in an irreverent and scurrilous manner. Hence the people’s cry from
the heart, which has become proverbial.
Til eat what Tve paid for, however much it croaks.
A Lori tribesman came to town one day, and seeing some tempting
vegetables in a shop, bought some together with some flaps of bread
and, squatting down by the door of the mosque, began to eat them.
It so happened that there was a frog concealed among the leaves,
but the Lor, supposing it to be some new kind of vegetable, folded
it into his bread and, in spite of its protests, proceeded to swallow it.
The proverb is used by Isfaliani merchants when they have made a
bad bargain, but insist on making the best of it.
Jf you’ve no mother, get on with your stepmother.
Make the best of things as they are.
THE FLEETING WORLD
If you haven’t a house to fit an elephant^ don’t make friends with
This verse is from Sa‘di, who has another on the same theme :
“Either be content with your troubles, or throw your entrails to
the crows,” that is to say, by trying to escape from your present
troubles, you may expose yourself to somethiog worse.
No lamp hums till morning.
Nothing lasts for ever, perfect happiness is impossible.
Behind every smile lie two hundred tears.
The meaning is similar to the last, but it is interesting to note the
reversed form of it quoted below (page 18).
He most values safety who experiences danger.
The story of this proverb occurs in the Golestan of Sa‘di, and
relates how a king, while on a sea-voyage, noticed a Persian slave who,
never having been at sea before, was making a great commotion
and refusing to be reassured. A wise man on the ship offered to cure
him, and succeeded in doing so by throwing lum into the sea and
allowing loim to sink beneath the water several times before dragging
him out by the hair. After this experience the slave gave no more
Gruel is better than nothing.
Half a loaf is better than no bread.
Even loss can he a profit
Many popular tales centre round the character of Molla Nasr ^
ad-Din, who may be said to represent the rustic combination of
stupidity and simple logic. One of his practices, it is said, was to
buy eggs at nine for a penny and sell tliem at ten for a penny. When
asked why he did this, he replied, “ Even loss can be a profit,” mean-
ing that at least people would know that he was in business. The
proverb is used to console someone who has suffered a heavy loss.
The Mind want only eyes.
People say this to a man when they at last give him something for
which he has been asking.
Hope is horn of despair.
Every tear has a smile behind if.
Rumi caps this with the line : “He who sees through to the end
is the happiest of mortals,”
Whatever happens is good.
It’s all for the best, “ The gifts of God arc good.” (Arabic.)
Some heads have little sustenance, hut there are none without any.
There's always bread for an open mouth.
A molla was expatiating from the pulpit on the delights of paradise,
and was describing in some detail the charms of the countless huris
who would greet and minister to the faithful on their arrival. At
length a voice came from among the women, “ And what about
us?” The molla looked in their direction and replied, “Don’t
worry. There’s always bread for an open mouth.” Said in order
to comfort those who complain of their hard lot.
Man lives on hope.
A broken hand works, but not a broken heart.
Don’t give way to despair.
An apple thrown into the air will turn a thousand times before
it reaches the ground.
It was related of Chengiz Khan that, whenever he went out hunting,
THE FLEETING WORLD
he had a hundred prisoners beheaded before the gates of the city, no
doubt with the idea of propitiating the gods and securing a good day’s
sport. On one occasion the prisoners were headed by a wise old man
who, when the sword was about to fall, dodged to one side and threw
himself on the ground. Chengiz said angrily, “ You foolish old man,
how can you expect to escape, loaded down with chains as you are ?
Why don’t you accept your fate at once, instead of trying to dodge ? ”
“ They say,” answered the old man calmly, “ that an apple thrown
into the air will turn a thousand times before it reaches the ground.
How am I to know that in that short space of time something might
not happen to save me from death? ” Chengiz angrily took a large
ruby, the size of an apple, from his pocket and threw it into the air,
saying, “ Do you really think that something can happen before this
ruby reaches the ground ? ’ ’ Hardly were the words out of his mouth
when the heavy ruby struck his horse’s head, the horse reared, and
Chengiz was thrown heavily to the ground and killed. His retinue, in
terror of their lives now that their master was gone, took to their
heels, and the prisoners returned in triumph to the city.
Escape may lie hetween this pillar and that.
An innocent man was condemned to death by an unjust governor,
and when the executioner had bound him to a pillar and was about to
cut olfhis head, the victim begged that he might be bound to die next
pillar instead. The executioner laughed at him, saying, “ What can
you hope to gain from so brief an interval? You might just as well
let me finish ray job.” But eventually he gave way to the man’s
entreaties ; and while he was engaged in untying him and fastening
him to the next pillar, the king chanced to pass by and asked the
meaning of the large crowd that had gathered. On being told, he
sent for the condemned man, who was able to convince him of his
innocence, and so escaped death.
God gives pain, and also gives the cure.
There is a cure for every ill.
May God always Mess us with such evil!
A pious man bought a cow in the market and set out for his home.
He was followed by a thief who planned to steal liis cow. On the
way the thief fell in with another man who revealed himself as a
demon who planned to take the pious man’s life. As they drew near
to the latter’s house, where the cow was now tied up, it occurred to
the thief that if the demon killed the pious man first, his family might
be aroused, and it would be impossible to steal the cow. At the same
time the demon thought that, if the thief stole the cow first, the pious
man would be awakened by its bellowing, and so would escape death.
Each began to ask the other to wait and take second place, and
eventually they came to blows. The thief began to shout, “ O pious
man, here is a demon who has come to take your life ! ” while the
demon shouted back, “ O pious man, here is a thief who has come to
steal your cow ! ” In the end the man and his family were aroused,
the thief and the demon took to their heels, and the pious man drew
the above moral for the benefit of his family.
He who has a lucky star sleeps on his hack
A lucky man may do as he likes.
2 . PRACTICAL WISDOM
Many Persian proverbs urge one to have a sense of proportion, not to take
things too seriously. “ Don’t make a rope of a hair,” we are told; after all,
“ Heaven will not get a hole in it Be practical; “ two half donkey-loads
make no more than a whole one ”, in other words, it is six of one and half
a dozen of the other. Don’t go to extremes, “ don’t he as salty as that, or
as tasteless as this”. The good business man is admired; indeed, “the
merchant is the friend of God”. There is no discredit in looking after your
own interests first, and the cleverer you are the better you will do this. There
is a lot to he said for the sharp fellow who is like “ water under straw ”, who
has “a cat under his arm ” ; it is hardly surprising that the man who has
“ thrown out the cat from under his arm ” has not so much decided to abandon
deceitful ways, as let the cat out of the bag. The emphasis of all the proverbs
in this section is on caution, expediency and worldliness.
When a hundred comes, ninety is here as well
The whole includes the parts. The Arabs have a saying, “ When
the sun rises, there is no need of the moon.”
An elephant alive costs a hundred tumans, hut so does a dead one.
Don’t complain of minor faults in something.
Stretch your foot to the length of your hlanket.
In other words, cut your coat according to your cloth. This
proverb is very popular in both Persian and Arabic literature, and has
been used by many of the great poets, including Hafez, Attar, Naser-e
Khosrou and Asadi.
Eat little, sleep sound.
Waste not, want not.
An ear of corn has only one heal
Don’t expect too much.
Don't take a hite too hi^ for your mouth.
Don’t bite off more than you can chew.
You can only £et meat from the side of a cow.
You must only expect something from the man who has the power
to do it.
Carpentry is no trade for a monkey.
Threshing corn is no task for a £oat.
It's the bird with the hooked heak that eats millet.
These three are all similar to our “ Let the cobbler stick to his last.”
The second is a verse from Sa'di and continues, “ It requires an ox and
a hardened man.” The story of the first is to be found in the Anuor-e
Soheili, a later version of the KalilS va Demni referred to in the Intro-
duction, and runs as follows : A monkey was watching a carpenter
at work, and noticed that, as he sawed through the length of a log of
wood, he would put wedges one after the other into the crack in
order to hold the sides apart and make room for the saw. When the
carpenter had gone, the monkey slipped into his place, and proceeded
to take out the wedge that was in place without inserting another
further down the crack. The two halves of the timber sprang
together and caught the monkey’s tail. In pain and despair he cried
out, “ I should have stuck to my own task of picking fruit,” but there
was no escape, and when the carpenter returned later he caught and
Don't sleep in a troubled place, and you won't dream a troubled
Beware of a rickety wall, a savage do^, and a quarrelsome woman.
The first condition of safety is caution.
Walls have mice and mice have ears.
The Arabs have a saying, “ If you talk by night, lower your voice,
and if you talk by day, keep your eyes open.”
Dont jump into the water where there is no ford.
Dont cut without measuring.
Look before you leap. A Kurdish proverb says, “ First see the
mother, and then ask for her daughter’s hand.”
Hearing is never as good as seeing.
From truth to falsehood is no more than four fingers.
Four fingers, that is to say, the distance between eye and ear. The
meaning is, of course, the same as the preceding.
He who has been bitten by a snake fears a piece of string.
A burnt child dreads the fire.
Use your enemy's hand to catch a snake.
To avoid disfavour, follow the crowd.
When in Rome, do as Rome does. The story goes that the whole
population of a certain city were suddenly afflicted with madness,
with die exception of one man who had been absent at the time.
On his return he found the whole place in confusion, with the people
running around naked, laughing, dancing, fighting, climbing trees, and
so on. Dumb with amazement, he sat down in a comer, when
suddenly he was observed by one of the citizens who, seeing him
clothed and silent, cried out to the others, “ Look ! Look ! A mad-
man ! ” The whole crowd seized upon the unfortunate man and
began to hurl him to and fro, shouting “ A madman ! A madman ! ”
In despair, he tore off his clothes and began to join m the shouting,
whereupon the crowd, seeing that he had regained his sanity, left him
alone onqe more.
A stone thrown at the ri^ht time is better than gold given at the
A tear in place is better than a smile out of place.
Stone breaks stone.
Iron smooths iron.
Iron takes iron from the furnace.
All have the meaning of “ diamond cuts diamond ” ; it may take
harsh measures to achieve a desirable result. Similarly the proverb
It takes a needle to get a thorn from one^s foot.
He has eaten so many snakes that he has become a viper.
A man who has wide experience in crime will quickly recognize
crime in others ; he will be a thief to catch a thief
He is partner to the thief and escort to the caravan.
He is running with the hare and hmiting with the hounds.
Take care to burn neither spit nor kabobs.
Keep on good terms with both sides.
Don’t give thanks for your catch till you’ve eaten it.
It is said that foxes have a habit of shaniniing dead in order to
deceive and trap other birds and animals. A wHy crow once saw a
fox doing this, but in order to make sure that he was really dead,
he drew a line round the body and went away saying to himself,
“ If the fox is stdl inside the line to-morrow, I will know that he is
really dead.’* As soon as he had gone, the fox got up, but early
next morning he returned and lay down as before inside the line.
The crow, seeing him still there, came up in all confidence, but
before he could peck out the fox’s eyes, he was seked. Seeing no
chance of escape, he said to the fox, “ I have no objection to your
eating me, but you should at least say grace first.” The fox opened
his mouth to give thanks to God, and the crow flew off. Notice
the similarity and contrast between this story and the one on
Don’t sell the hearskin kfore you’ve caught the hear.
Two friends went out bear-hunting. For four days they saw
nothing, and each night tliey slept in a nearby village, pledging the
bear’s skin against the cost of their lodging. On the fiftla day a huge
bear appeared, and Ali said nervously to his friend, “ I don’t mind
confessing that I’m afraid to take on this bear.” Hasan laughed and
retorted, ” I’ve always known that you were incapable of taking on
a cock, let alone a bear. Just you leave him to me.” So Ali
scrambled like lightnmg up the nearest tree, and Hasan stood with his
gun at the ready. The bear came lumbering on, and Hasan began
to grow more and more scared. At length he raised his gun to his
shoulder, but by now he was trembling so much that, before he could
take proper aim, his gun went off and missed the target. Hasan,
remembering that bears never touch a dead body, threw himself
flat and held his breath. The bear came up, snuffed all round him
and finally made off. Ali, who had been watching the whole affair
from his tree, now came down and, congratulating Hasan on his
escape, asked him, “What did die bear whisper in your ear?”
“ Oh,” replied Hasan, ” he told me never to sell the bear’s skin before
I’d caught the bear.”
Aesop has a similar story with a different moral.
A thief is a kin£ till he's caught.
They count the chickens in autumn.
Wait and see how things turn out. By autumn many of the spring
chickens will have been lost.
Don't lose your head like the dog in the story.
A dog stole a piece of meat from a butcher’s shop and ran off.
In order to escape the butcher, he jumped into a river and began to
swim across. In mid-river he suddenly caught sight of his own re-
flection, and supposing it to be another dog with a piece of meat,
opened his mouth to grab this new prize. The meat fell from his
jaws and was carried away by the stream. Thus the proverb advises
one not to give up the substance for the shadow.
He lost a camel and went after its saddle.
He worries about trifles and ignores fundamentals.
All's not a walnut that's round.
Not every bearded man's your father.
All is not gold that glitters.
A single rose does not mean spring.
Persians also use the expression, ” One swallow does not make a
Trust in God, hut tie your camel.
One day the Prophet’s camel was lost, and only recovered after
a long search. The Prophet asked his groom, ” Why didn’t you tie
back the camel’s knee ^ when you left it to rest? ” “I didn’t tie it
1 Camels in the desert are normally fastened in this way.
because I put my trust in God,” answered the groom, “ Both, tie
and trust,” replied the Prophet. Originally an Arabic proverb and
story, the Persian form is taken from the Masnavi of Jalal ad-Din
Necessity turns lion into fox.
Necessity turns even the noblest men into deceivers. This also
is a verse from Rumi’s Masnavi.
The lamp in the home is not for the mosque.
Charity begins at home.
A fruit that hangs out of the garden will he stoned hy every
Don’t expose your family and property to the depredations of
Look after your money and donH make your neighbour a thief
Don’t put temptation in the way of others.
An account is an account and a brother a brother.
Never mind about brotherhood, goats are joo dinars apiece.
Where business is concerned, personal relations must not enter.
The Arabs say, “ Live together like brothers and do business like
They- tie up an ass where his master wishes.
He who rents his room lives as he pleases.
He who pays the piper calls the tune.
Gold brings gold, lack of gold a headache,
Oil adds to oil hut groats remain dry.
A slap in hand is better than a gift to come.
A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. So also :
Vinegar in hand is better than halva to come.
The druM'^corps camel is not frightened by the noise.
Nader’s drum was fastened on his hack.
Both these proverbs imply that the man will not be frightened by
someone’s empty threats, for he has heard plenty of them before.
Accordmg to the first story, a child was left to guard a field of com,
and had before him a drum which he beat repeatedly m order to scare
away birds and other beasts. It so happened that one of the camels
of Soltan Mahmud’s drum corps had strayed, and wandered into the
field in search of fodder. The child beat his drum with all his might,
but the camel would not go ; and a passer-by remarked, “ You are
‘ beating cold iron ’, you are wasting your time, for he is a drum-corps
camel, and his eyes and ears are full of such sounds.” In the second
story, a camel which had formerly carried the drum of the conqueror
Nader Shall lost its way and wandered into die yard of m old widow.
The widow tried to frighten him away by beating on a large brass
tray, but the camel said, “ We are not afraid, we have seen plenty of
this sort of thing, for once Nader’s drum was fastened to our back.”
Rain will not come at the prayer of a black cat.
We came at no one’s biddings and we go at no one’s curse.
Both these expressions may be used as a retort to someone who
abuses you, implying that his words will have no effect.
You don’t feed a donkey sugar and greens.
Why cast pearls before swine ? Compare :
Why play music for a deaf man, or dance for a blind man ?
Sweep clean the house of your friends, hut dont knock at the
door of your foe.
The following story comes from the Golestan of Sa'di. A poor
man stole a rug from the house of his friend. The governor ordered
his hand to be cut olF,^ but his friend interceded for him, saying
“ I have forgiven him.” Replied the governor, “ I caimot stretch
the limits of the law for the sake of your intercession.” “ You are
right,” replied the friend, “ but no one who steals vaqf (reHgious)
property is liable to have his hand cut off, and since the poor own
nothing, anythmg that they have is a vaqf for those who need it.”
The governor revoked the thief’s punishment and rebuked him,
saying, “ What possessed you to steal from the house of a sincere
friend hke tliis? ” “ Your Honour,” replied the thief, ” have you
not heard that one may sweep clean the house of a friend, but shouldn’t
even knock at the door of a foe ? ”
A sponsor will he caught hy the purse or caught hy the collar.
It is not worth while to go surety for anyone.
If you die for someone, see that he has a fever for you.
Have some practical purpose in putting yourself out for anyone.
Show him death, and hell he content with fever.
If you propose harsh conditions to someone, he will gladly agree
to what you really want.
Donf judge a pepper'^corn hy its smallness, crack it and see how
sharp it is.
An insignificant-looking man may have sharp wits.
1 The traditional punishment for theft.
He extends as far beneath -the earth as he does above.
This comment is also applied to a small but clever man.
It is better for an ant to have win^s.
The Arabic version runs, “ If God had wanted to destroy the ant,
he would have given it wings.” In other words, it is better for a sly
fellow to keep to his own methods, and not to imitate those greater
or more powerful than himself.
5 . FORESIGHT AND SELF-RELIANCE
Several proverbs in the previous section urged self-reliance and independence,
and in this section the theme is continued. He who wishes to “ mount his
donkey ”, “ to take it across the bridge ”, in other words, to put his affairs in
order and achieve his aim, must have foresight and must be prepared to expend
effort and suffer pain. If he does this, he will undoubtedly “pull his blanket
out of the water ” ; he may even “ hit two targets with one arroiv ”, or if you
prefer it, “ cat both from the nosebag and from the manger ”. In general, we
are on more familiar ground here. There is less of sly cunning, more of honest
endeavour; though as yet we do not find very much in the way of an ideal set
up before us. That, perhaps, is to come ; in the meantime, it is enough that
we should stand on our own feet.
The spring may he dammed with a rod.
This is the first half of a well-known verse from the Golestan. It
continues, “ Let it swell to full size and you may not cross it with, an
elephant.” In other words, a stitch in time saves nine.
War at the beginning is better than peace at the end.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Make bread while the oven is hot.
After SohraFs death the antidote.
This proverb comes from the well-known story of Rostam and
Sohrab, as given in the Shahnamd of Ferdousi. It will be remembered
that Rostam unknowingly fought a duel with his son Sohrab, of
whose existence he had not previously even been aware, and who
was now the champion of Turan, the enemy of Iran. Sohrab was
mortally wounded, and revealed the secret of his parenthood to his
father. Rostam, distraught, pleaded with his sovereign Kei Kavus
to let him have an infallible antidote from the royal treasury. The
Icing at first refused, and when he finally agreed, it was too late.
Both this and the proverb that follows have the meanmg of “ After
death the doctor,” or “ Don’t shut the stable door after the horse
has gone.” Compare :
An antidote from distant Iraq will not cure a deadly snakebite.
If you have no door, why have a doorman ?
He whose wife dies siyhs for a sister4nAaw.
Said of someone who loses somethmg that he did iiot value highly
First diy a well and then steal a minaret.
plan your task before you start it. The story goes that the people
of a village near Sabzevar plotted to steal a particular minaret, and for
this purpose took a hundred donkeys and lined them up in front of
the minaret, and prepared to lower it on to their backs. At this
juncture an old man asked them, “ Have you dug a well in which to
hide it ? ” The two proverbs that follow are variations on this theme.
First see the headman and then fleece the village.
First build your cowshed and then buy a cow for it
Others planted for us to eat ; now we plant for others to eat.
Anushirvan the Just, when riding through the country-side, saw
an old man of eighty busily employed ha planting walnut saplings.
“ Old man,” he said, “ you know tlaat it -v^l be years before those
saplings bear fruit. Why do you waste so much effort on something
that you can never share? ” “ Sire,” replied the old man, “ others
planted for us to eat, now we plant for others to eat.” The king was
FORESIGHT AND SELF-RELIANCE 33
* pleased with this answer and gave the old man a hundred ashrajis.
“ Sire,” said the old man, “ others planted for us to eat ; we too
planted for others to eat, but we did not die, and so we ourselves ate.”
The king was even more pleased at this, and gave him another hundred
ashrajis. “ Sire,” continued the old man, “ others planted for us to
eat ; we planted for others to eat, but we not only lived and ate our-
I selves, we even left something for our posterity to eat in comfort.”
I The king was delighted with this answer, and gave the old man yet
another hundred ashrajis. “ Sire,” began the old man — but at this
juncture the king’s chief minister, Bozorgmehr, interrupted. “Let
us leave, Your Majesty, for if we expose ourselves much longer to the
ready wit of this astute old man, the royal treasury will soon be
empty.” The proverb as used encourages one to look ahead and to
plan for the future.
What is cheaply found is despised.
I • What is brought hy the wind will he carried away hy the wind.
' One day the wind blew a cotton-seed into a sparrow’s nest. He
! asked his neighbour what it was, and he replied, “ If you sow this,
it will produce a pod, the pod will produce cotton, the cotton wiU be
I spun into thread, the thread will be woven into cloth, the cloth will
be dyed and sewn up into coats for you and me.” The sparrow took
the seed to a peasant in a field, saying, “ Sow ! Sow! Sow this
seed I Half for me and half for you.” The peasant did so, and
when after a while the plant came up and the pods were ripe, he
divided them between himself and the sparrow. The sparrow took
his share to the sphmer, saying, “ Spin ! Spin 1 Spin this cotton 1
' Half for me and half for you.” The spinner did so and gave the
sparrow his share. The sparrow took the thread to the weaver,
saying, “ Weave ! Weave 1 Weave this thread 1 Half for me and
half for you.” The weaver did so and gave the sparrow his share.
The sparrow took it to the dyer, saying, “ Dye 1 Dye 1 Dye this
cloth ! Half for me and half for you.” The dyer dyed the cloth
briglit blue and hung it on the line to dry in the sun. When the
sparrow saw it, he thought, “ What a beautiful colour ! It seems a pity
to divide such a fine piece of cloth.” He swooped down and carried
it off in his beak, and took it to the tailor, saying, “ Sew ! Sew !
Sew this cloth ! One for you and one for me.” So the tailor made
two beautiful coats and hung them on a peg. The sparrow thought,
“ It seems a pity to give such a fine coat to the tailor. I’ll take both
for myself” So he snatched the two coats and took them to the
moUa, saying, “ O molla, I wish to leave these two coats in trust with
you, until such time as the weather gets colder. In return, one shall
be for you, and one for me.” The molla agreed, but to himself he
thought, “ It seems a pity to give one of these coats to this ridiculous
sparrow. I’ll keep both for myself.” When the winter came, the
sparrow came for his coat, but the molla claimed ignorance. ” If you
are cold, I will pray for you,” he said. The sparrow flew off angrily,
but from a distance he saw the molla washing the two coats and hang-
ing them on the line. So when he was praying, the sparrow flew
down and snatched the two coats, and took them to the bazaar to sell
for food. On the way a storm blew up and whipped the two coats
out of the sparrow’s beak. No matter how he tried, he could not
recover them. The wind carried them away and dropped one before
the tailor and the other before the dyer. So justice was done.
Unless you take pains you will never acquire wealth.
Whoever needs a peacock must put up with a journey to India.
He who wants a rose must respect the thorn.
You will eat no more stew than you pay for.
I will only card cotton to the amount of your buttermilk.
You cannot expect something for nothing. Every gain requires
an effort of some kind.
FORESIGHT AND SELF-RELIANCE
You must start hy night to arrive hy day.
To walk and sit is better than to run and hurst.
The well-known story of the hare and the tortoise is often told
support of this proverb. Sa'di also has a story in his Golestan,
which he relates how, when a young man, he had been hurrying
day, and by evenhig was so exhausted that he could do no more than
throw himself down against a bank at the side of the road. A feeble
old man, who was following the caravan at leisure, said, “ Why are
you sitting? Get up, for this is no place to sleep.” “ How can I,”
I replied, “when I have no strength to walk?” “Haven’t you
heard,” said the old man, “ that it is better to walk and sit than to
run and burst?”
Drops that gather one hy one finally become a sea.
A verse from Naser-e Khosrou.
You must climb a ladder step by step.
A hasty man does his work twice over.
Compare the Arabic “ Haste is from the Devil.”
From fear of the porridge he fell into the pot.
More haste, less speed.
This is no task to be dipped in and out of a dye^uat.
Take your time over a task if you want to do it properly.
First raise this one child that you. have borne.
Don’t turn to another task before you have finished the first.
You can^t get raisins without unripe grapes.
Don’t pass OR tQ the last stages of a task before completing the firsts
36 PERSIAN PROVERBS
Soft words will get the snake out of its hole.
Gentle methods are best.
The seeker at last becomes the finder.
With patience you may make halva from unripe grapes.
By constantly asking one can reach China.
Where there’s a will there’s a way.
Unless the child cries, how will it get milk ?
A camel that wants fodder stretches out its neck.
Those who don’t ask don’t get.
God is the Provider, hut he needs a nudge.
In other words, God helps those who help themselves. Two
friends were disputing, one of them maintaining that God would
provide all one’s needs, the other arguing that one had to work for
one’s living. At length, to settle the matter, the first man went and
sat in a comer of the mosque to wait his sustenance from God. Two
days passed, and then tliree, and still nothing came from earth or
heaven. But on the evenhig of the third day three villagers came
into the mosque to eat their bread and cheese. As they were pack-
ing up the remainder of the food before leaving, our friend, seeing his
last chance about to disappear, coughed gently. The villagers
noticed him and, taking pity on his haggard appearance, gave him the
remains of their food. The man went back to his friend in all
humility. “God is indeed the Provider,” he admitted, “but he
needs a nudge.”
Go and wake up your luck.
The same idea as the preceding. According to popular beHef, a
man s luck is personified by a man who sleeps from time to time.
FORESIGHT AND SELF-RELIANCE
A widely known story relates how there were two brothers, one rich
and one poor. The latter tried one night to steal some of his brother’s
wheat, and was prevented by a man who turned out to be his brother’s
luck. This man told the poor brother that his luck was asleep on the
top of a distant mountain, and advised him to go and wake him. On
the way the brother met a lion, a horse and a tree (according to one
version), all of whom posed questions for his luck to solve. He
eventually found his luck, woke him, and got the answers to liis three
questions. The tree and the horse were satisfied with what they were
told, but the lion had asked, “ Why is it that, however much I eat,
I am never satisfied?” The answer was that he should eat the
brains of the most foolish man he could find. The lion looked at
the brother and exclaimed, “ I have never seen anyone as foolish as
you,” and promptly tore him in pieces.
A Jish taken from the water is always fresh.
It’s never too late to mend.
No one scratches my hack hut my own finger ‘'nail.
If you want a job well done, do it yourself. Compare the three
The masters eye has its own effect.
A man went on a journey and left his favourite horse in the care of
an old friend. The friend gave his grooms mstructions to pay special
attention to this horse, but in spite of this it languished from the first.
He began to give it personal attention, but even tliough he spent all
his time in the stable, the horse continued to waste away. He sent
for the best horse-doctors, but all to no avail. It was all the more
surprising because his own horse, though he neglected it, was fat and
flourishing. Eventually the horse’s owner returned from Iris journey.
His friend confessed with shame that, in spite of all his care, die horse
was sick and wasting. The owner smiled and replied, “ Didn’t you
know that the master’s eye has its own effect ? ”
38 PERSIAN PROVERBS
A mother hums her heart, a nurse her apron.
The more closely you are concerned with something, the more
trouble you take over it.
If I had been there, she would have had a son.
A man from the village of Sedeh near Isfahan went on a journey,
and on his return was greeted with the news that his wife had borne
him a daughter. “ If I had been there,” he grumbled, “ she would
have had a son.”
He who sits and waits for his neighbour will sleep hungry.
Every man is king in his own house.
Four walls make a man free.
The dog is a lion in his own house.
Three proverbs with a similar meaning.
He who eats the bread of his hands has no need of Hatem TaH.
Hatem Ta ‘i was an Arab chieftain famed for his generosity. Sa'di
tells how one day Hatem was giving a great feast to all the sheikhs
and tribesmen in the neighbourhood and, happening to go out into
the desert, came across a poor camel-herd. “ Haven’t you heard,”
he asked, " that Hatem Ta'i is giving a great feast for all who wish to
come?” The camel-herd’s reply has become proverbial.
It is better to die a beggar than to ask for help.
Tliis verse, like the preceding and the two following, are from
Sa'di’s Golestan. A beggar was suffering die utmost extremities of
hunger, and a passer-by said to him, " There is a man in this city who
is renowned for his generosity. Why don’t you go to him, for when
he knows of your plight he will be sure to help you ? ” The beggar’s
FORESIGHT AND SELF-RELIANCE 39
reply, as a proverb, suggests that one should not be under an obligation
One mm honoured in death is better than a hundred living in shame.
To die with honour is better than to Hue in disgrace.
A courageous man received a terrible wound hi the wars against
the Tatars. He was told that a certain great man possessed a potent
medicine ; however, this person was notorious for his avarice. The
wounded man replied, “ If I ask for the medicine, he may or may not
give it ; and if he gives it, it may. or may not benefit me. Begging
from him would itself be poison, for whatever you beg from the mean
may fatten your body, but it will detract from your honour.”
4. VIRTUE ITS OWN REWARD
Our next section starts with the theme that virtue is its own reward.
Emphasis, however, is on the personal aspect; we must do good if we wish
to receive good, and hy extension we must cure our own faults before we
criticize the faults of others. We are warned how easy it is to he blind to our
own shortcomings, to be swayed by self-interest in coming to a decision.
Justice should be based on fair shares for all; no innocent man should be
blamed for the sins of others. Conversely, we must remember that our own
evil actions may have repercussions on others, particularly on our own kindred.
Good deeds return to the house of their author.
Blood cannot he washed out with hlood.
Two wrongs do not make a right.
Do to me what would please you if it were done to you.
Stick a needle into yourself before a hodkin into others.
Cast first the beam out of thine own eye.
She couldn't tidy her own head, hut she went to dress the hride.
A lazy and slovenly woman, who would hardly budge from the
comer of the room in order to fetch a jug of water, heard one day
that a fine wedding was being held in the headman s house, and decided
that at all costs she must go to it. Without even bothering to dress up,
she shnffled along and sneaked into the house among die other guests.
The hostess soon noticed her and, realizing that she was not one of
the invited, asked her what she was doing there. “lam the lady’s
maid,” she replied, “ I’ve come to get die bride ready for the wedding
and to tie die kerchief round her head.” Another guest, who knew
the woman for what she was, remarked, “ If you’re good at tying
VIRTUE ITS OWN REWARD
kerchiefs, why don’t you tie one round your own head?” The
. implication of die proverb, like those that follow, is that one should
attend to one’s own faults first.
The doctor must heal his own hald head,^
If you mend water^hags^ go and mend your own.
If you can sing lullahies, send yourself to sleep.
He was thrown out of the pillage, and he claimed the headmans
This proverb and the one that follows point to the unwisdom of
trying to carry out a major task when you have proved incapable of
completing a small one.
He who has no bread doesn^t eat an onion.
An onion, that is, to stimulate his appetite.
No one sees his own faults.
Everyone sees his own image in the water ; the farmer sees rain,
the washerman sun.
Everyone sees what he wants to see.
The elephant dreams one thing, the elephanUdriver another.
Everyone thinks of himself; even the thin4eard thinks of his
1 In Persia and many other parts of the Middle East baldness is the result
of a scalp disease.
He who goes to the qazi done returns happy.
A judge who hears only one side of the case cannot decide im~
partially. Similar thoughts are to he found in maity of the great
poets, particularly Nezami, Attar, Naser-e Kliosrou and Rumi.
His verdict is like that of the qazi of Balkh.
Our donkey never had a tail!
These two proverbs come from the same story, both being protests
against unfair decisions. A debtor was being dragged by his creditor
to the qazi of Balkli, and hoping to escape dashed through the open
door of a house and up the stairs on to the roof. Unfortunately for
him there was no other way down, and m jumping into the neigh-
bouring yard he landed on the neighbour’s wife, who was pregnant.
As a result she had a miscarriage, and the infuriated husband seized
upon the debtor, who, seeing that “ when the water has covered the
head, a htmdred fathoms are as one ”, told him to join the creditor
and see the qazi. A little further on a runaway horse was being
chased. The debtor, trying to be helpful, threw a stone at it, and the
stone “ went everywhere ” until it hit the horse in the eye, blinding it.
The owner came up in a rage, and the debtor replied, “ We are all
on our way to the qazi ; you had better come with' us.” They came
next to an overloaded ass that had fallen down in the mud, and its
owner asked the four men for help. They all took hold of it, the
debtor grasping the tail ; and as luck would have it, when he pulled,
the tail came right off. The owner began to abuse the debtor, but
the latter replied, “ All right, you too had better come to the qazi.”
Finally they came to the qazCs house, and as they went in, the debtor
secretly concealed a large stone under his coat. As he bowed to the
qazi, he surreptitiously pointed to the bulge in his coat, implying that
it was a purse of gold. The qazi took the hint, and then called on the
creditor to state his case. The debtor flatly denied his claims, and
since the creditor had no papers in support of them, the qazi sent him
away empty-handed. Then the husband came forward and told his
story. The qazi replied, “ Very well, this woman must go and stay
VIRTUE IT.S OWN REWARD
in the defendant’s house until she is once more pregnant ; he must be
liable for all her expenses, and during this period her husband must
not come near her.” The husband protested violently against this
decision, and finally the qazi ruled that, in consideration of a payment
of five hundred rials by the husband to the debtor, all claims and
1 counter-claims between them should be cancelled. Next the horse-
i owner came forward, and the qazi said, “ Certauily the defendant
must pay damages, but in order that we may assess them fairly, the
horse is to be sawn in half, and the half with the sound eye sold in
J the bazaar ; whatever price it fetches will be a fair valuation of the
I half that the defendant has damaged.” The owner protested
violently, and finally it was decided that the debtor should receive
^ a sum of one hundred rials from the horse-owner and should keep
1 ■ the horse. Meanwhile the owner of the donkey had been watching
^ all this with growing concern, and when his turn came, he tried to
sneak out of the court. The qazi called after him, ” Where are you
I going, my friend? Come and state your case.” But the donkey’s
owner replied, ” I have no complaint, your honour ; I swear that my
donkey never had a tail, even as a colt ! ”
j It's the story of the mouse and the slab of cheese.
I Two mice one day stole a piece of cheese and, being unable to agree
over the division of it, decided to take the case to an old cat, who had
long since repented of her ways and given up chasing mice. “ Cer-
I tainly,” agreed the cat, “ I will divide it fairly for you.” She took
I I a knife and cut the cheese into two unequal halves. She then placed
[ « them m the scales and, finding that they did not balance, cut a piece
¥ off the larger and swallowed it. It was now the other half that was
too heavy, and so she repeated the process. This went on until
[. finally there was only a tiny piece left in one of the scales. “ And
[; this,” she said, gobbling it up, “is my fee!”
, One roof and two climates !
Another proverb on the subject of unfair discrimination. It is
generally said that mothers-in-law are well-disposed to their sons-in-
law and ill-disposed to their daughters-in-law. It so happened that
a mother was liviag in the same house as her son and daughter and
tlieir respective wife and husband. It was towards the end of summer,
and people were stdl sleeping on the roof at night. One night the
mother woke, and as it seemed that the night had turned a litde cold,
she went over to her sleepmg daughter and her husband and pulled
the quilt over them, saying, “ The night has turned a little cold, you
must be careful of yourselves,” Then she went over to her son and
daughter-in-law and pulled back the covers, saying, “ You really
shouldn’t use so many bedclothes in this hot weather, you will make
yourselves ill.” Her daughter-in-law, who had been awake and
heard all that had passed, cried out in astonisliment, “ Good heavens,
one roof and two climates ! That side is cold and this is hot.”
The mtlUwheel turns.
First come, first served ; turn and turn about. The image is taken
from peasants bringing their grain to the mill to be ground.
Injustice all round is justice.
Compare the Arabic, ” Evil is good if it is shared.”
This is the shrine that we huilt together.
A certain dervish had a group of followers, one of whom per-
sistently refused to recognize his authority. One day they were in
a remote part of die desert, and while the other disciples were pre-
paring a meal, the rebellious one was amusing himself in burying the
bones of a donkey that he had found there. The dervish watched
liim for a while, and then came over and helped him to build a mound
and place a stone over the spot, so that it looked like a real grave.
Then he asked the rebellious disciple, “ Are you ready yet to acknow-
ledge my authority? ” “ No,” replied the disciple. So the dervish
called his other followers togedier and told them to tie him up against
the mound that they had built. “ We shall leave you here,” he said.
VIRTUR ITS OWN REWARD
“ tlie wild beasts will come and devour you, and finally some travellers
will find you and bury you in this grave together with that unclean
donkey.” Then they went off, and the unfortunate disciple was left
there in fear and trembling. At last with a great effort he worked
liimself up against the stone on top of die grave, and by dint of
rubbing managed to cut through the cord that bound his hands. Just
at that moment he heard the bells of a distant caravan and, lighting
a torch, he stood on top of the mound and finally attracted the atten-
tion of the merchants. “ What are you doing in this desolate place ? ”
they asked in amazement as they came up. “Three days ago,”
replied the youth, “ I came to this tomb and lay down to rest. In my
dreams I saw a revered sayed who said, ‘ This grave is the grave of one
of the martyrs of our family, who suffered death in this desert. You
who have foimd your way here must spare no effort to preserve it
from destruction.’ So here I have remained for three days and nights
braving all hardsliips.” The merchants, impressed witli the youth’s
piety and devotion, each gave him food and money, and went on their
way. Soon the news spread throughout the neighbouring villages
and towns, and pilgrims began to come from far and wide to the
newly-discovered tomb, bringing gifts of all kinds. Before long the
youth was able to have a dome built over the grave, and after two or
three years the whole face of the desert was changed, with mosques,
shrines and cloisters, and a fine palace and servants for the youth him-
self, who now styled himself the “ Custodian of the Shrine ”. Seven
years passed, and by chance the same dervish came with his followers
to that spot, and was astonished at the change that had taken place.
The Custodian observed and recognized them, and ordered that they
should be lavishly entertained for a week. On the eighth day the
Custodian liimself came to the dervish’s lodging, but though the
dervish recognized his face, he could not tliink where he had met him
before. The Custodian gradually worked the conversation round to
his own story, and related how he had come there seven years before
with a dervish, how they had camped tliere, and how he and the
dervish “ had built this shrme together ”. The dervish at last recog-
nized his former disciple and, falling on his knees, begged forgiveness.
The proverb is generally used nowadays by someone who feels that his
partner in an undertakmg is trying to take all the profit.
The donkey works and the horse eats.
The cameU driver reaps where the muleteer sowed.
Two proverbs used when one person does all the work and someone
else takes all the profit or credit.
He couldnt manage the ass, so he pilfered its saddle.
Said when someone takes out his anger with a powerful man on
someone weaker than himself.
Every month is dangerous, hut Safar has the had name.
Safar, the second of the Moslem months, is regarded as particularly
unlucky. In Bedouhi times fighting was forbidden during the three
preceding months, and hence, a great many men generally lost their
lives in the renewed hostilities of Safar. It is also said that nine-
tentlos of all diseases come during Safar. The proverb is equivalent
to “ Give a dog a bad name . . .”
Money ^oes to one place, suspicion to a thousand.
When one person steals, many innocent men may be suspected.
They dont unload the caravan for one lame donkey.
They don*t close the mosque for one menstruating woman.''-
They don’t set the hazaar on fire for a handkerchief
A haberdasher’s apprentice was just closing the shop for the day,
when his sweetheart came in for a chat. She noticed on the shelf two
1 A menstruating woman may not pray.
VIRTUE ITS OWN REWARD
beautifully embroidered handkerchiefs ; “ the pot of her greed came
to the boil”, and she begged the apprentice to give them to her.
“ I can’t do that,” he replied ; “ ordy the master may sell those ;
it’s as much as my life is worth to touch them, for ‘ there’s a snake
sitting on them But the girl insisted, and finally the boy agreed.
When she had gone, he came to his senses. “ He’ll never believe me
if I say they’re lost, and if I tell him they’re sold he’ll want the money,
and if I say I sold them on credit he’ll answer that that’s forbidden,
and if I say that I’ve bought them myself, where will I find the money
to pay for them? ” Finally he betlrought himself of a mischievous
idea ; he started a fire in the comer of the shop and, locking the door,
hurried off. Before long the fire spread to the neighbouring shops ;
and by the time it was discovered, it was too late to control it, and in
the end the whole bazaar was destroyed.
An injured hand means trouble for the neck.
A man’s misfortunes bring grief to his relatives.
The oppressor's wrongs fall on his children's heads.
5 . MISERS AND SKINFLINTS
In this section tve come to the engrossing subject of miserliness and its accom-
panying vices of envy, covetousness and greed. Many are the stories told of
misers; perhaps one of the most typical is of the three mho were frying to outdo
one another. “ Tm so mean," said the first, “ that if someone knocks at the
door when Tm about to start my supper, I hastily clear it away so that I wont
have to share it.” “ Oh, that's nothing," retorted the second, “ that only
means that you haven't enough to go round. Now Tm so mean that, when
I go out to a dinner-party, I object if another guest turns up." “ That's not
real meanness," laughed the third, “ you're just afraid that your host didn't
know this other guest was coming, and will only have prepared food for two.
Now Tm really mean. If someone gives me a present, I get angry with him
for wasting his substance ! " A man like this, we are told, could “get colour
from water ", he would “put the cat in prison ", he could “ let a fly's blood in
the air". Even “ water will not drip from his hand". But there is a con-
soling thought. Pride comes before a fall, and so it will be with all skinflints
and those who oppress the poor and weak; their “ drum will be torn ", “ their
wash-tub will fall from the roof".
He dedicated spilt oil to the shrine.
One day a man was passing in front of a shrine with ajar of oil in
his hand. Suddenly it slipped, and all the oil was spilt. The man
turned towards the shrine and called out, “ O holy saint, I dedicate
this oil to your lamps ! ” The proverb is used of a selfish person who
gives away something worthless.
He gives a party with the hath-'water.
The sheikh succumbed to the hroth.
The headman of the village wanted the molla to endorse some
fictitious document for him. So he invited him to diue, and in-
structed his wife to prepare an excellent meal and to take particular
MISERS AND SKINFLINTS
care with a special kind of hrotli, of which the moUa was very fond
since he had no teeth. The molla duly arrived, enjoyed a pipe and
a glass of tea, and as they had expected, did full justice to the excellent
broth. He finished off with another glass of tea and a pipe, and then
without further ado rose to liis feet and prepared to leave. The head-
man, greatly upset, begged and implored him to stay a little longer,
but the molla would not hear of it and with a thousand excuses took
his leave and departed. “ Didn’t the sheildi like the broth? ” asked
the headman’s wife. “ Yes,” said her husband. “ Then why didn’t
he sign the document?” “Alas,” replied the headman, “the
sheikli succumbed to the broth.” The proverb is now used of some-
one who is only co-operative up to the point where he has secured
all he wants.
What pauper basnet a tuman in his pocket ?
A certain merchant used to send his black slave to collect his
accoimts, but wherever he went, he would get die reply, “ I have
no money,” and being a simple fellow he beHeved them. The
merchant realized that, because the slave had never himself had any
money in his pocket, he thought that everyone else was the same.
So he gave hun a tuman' s worth of small change, and told him always
to carry it widi liim ; and in future whenever the slave met with a
negative response, he would answer, “ What pauper hasn’t at least
a tuman in his pocket?” The proverb is used in reference to an
obdurate creditor who wdl not take “ no ” for an answer.
The " haues know nothini of the " have-nots
The full man knows nothing of the hungry, nor the rider of the
He who sits on the fence is light of heart.
Hell let it rot for the dog before he shares it with another.
Said of a “ dog in the manger ”.
The nei^hhou/s morsel has gooso'^jat on it.
Other people’s possessions always seem better than one’s own.
The Uind man is laughing at the haldhead.
The pot is calling the kettle black, or, as the Persians themselves
also put it,
One pot calls another hlack
The blind man thinks that the seeing man eats with both hands.
Said of someone who envies odiers without clue cause.
There are many walnuts in the qazi‘s house, but they are all
It is useless to envy other people’s wealth.
The molla who Hues free ought to marry the mice in the house.
A scrounger should do something in return for what he gets.
No one has ever seen the leg of a snake, the eye of an ant, or
charity from a molla.
He wants both God and dates.
He wants to have his cake and eat it. According to tradition, the
Dajjal (equivalent to the Antichrist) will appear before the end of the
world mounted on a monstrous donkey, which will drop dates in-
stead of dung. Men will follow the Dajjal for the sake of the dates
and will be led into Hell.
His pot died in childbirth.
Said of someone who suffers loss because of his greed. Molla Nasr
ad-Din one day borrowed a pot from his neighbour, and the next day
MISERS AND SKINFLINTS
returned it with a little pot inside. “ This little pot isn’t mine,” said
his neighbour. “ Yes, it is,” repHed the molla, “ your pot gave birth
to it last night.” The neighbour, a greedy man, thought to take
advantage of Molla Nasr ad-Din’s simplicity and said no more. A
few days later the molla borrowed the pot again ; but this time several
days passed, and the pot was not returned. So the neighbour went
round to ask for it ; but the molla greeted him with a long face and
said, “ Alas ! Your pot died in childbirth.” “ What are you talking
about?” exclaimed the angry neighbour. “Well, you weren’t
surprised when I told you the other day that it had given birth, so
why should you be surprised now?”
He smells kabohs, hut it's only a roasting donkey.
Said of someone who blunders through excessive greed.
Even the qazi will drink free wine.
Most men will sacrifice principle for greed.
A hungry man has no faith.
A man was nearly dying of hunger. The Devil came to him and
offered him food if the man would sell him liis faith. The hmgry
man agreed, but when he had eaten his fill he refused, saying,
“ What I sold you when I was hungry did not exist, for a hungry
man has no faith.”
To the hungry wolf good cameUmeat or the Dajjal's donkey are
A verse from Sa‘di with a meaning similar to that of the preceding
Even a single hair from a hear is profit.
It is worth while getting anytliing from a miser.
A fit doi would become a greyhound in his house.
A man dined one evening at the house of the village headman ;
but the latter was an excessively mean man, and not only gave him
a very poor meal, but provided none of the amenities that might be
expected from a host. A few days later the guest was present with
a number of other elders of the village at a meeting in the headman’s
house, when the headman caught sight of a large and well-fed stray
dog. “ I must catch that dog,” he said, “ he will make an excellent
watch-dog for my house.” “ For goodness’ sake don’t do that,”
protested the guest ; “ in your house it won’t be long before he turns
into a greyhound.”
Dont ^et hit on the head with your basin.
An avaricious man went one day to the public bath. Alone in the
changing-room, he began to bemoan his hard lot and, praying to
God, said, “ O God, before anyone else comes please fill this changing-
room with ashrajis, tliat my wretched lot may change.” He remained
for a few minutes with his hands raised, but no matter how long he
dawdled over his undressing, not a single ashraji appeared. At last
he moved on into the hot bath, and there again prayed, saying, “ O
God, perhaps the changing-room was too large, but could you not
at least fill this smaller room ? ” But again nothing happened, and
he went on into a yet smaller room and offered up a similar prayer,
but with equally little effect. Finally he came out into the courtyard
and, filling his basin wMr water, placed it before him and prayed, ” O
God, it seems that those three other places were too large, but could
you not at least fill tins little basin with ashrajis ? If you won’t do
that, then hit me on the head with it, so that at any rate, if I can’t
enjoy your favour, I may suffer your disfavour.” It so happened
that a mischievous fellow in the bath had overheard the whole story,
and creeping up behind the miser he seized the basin, hit him on the
head with it and ran off before the unfortunate man came to. The
miser raised his hands in protest. “ O God,” he cried, “ you were
deaf to all my appeals to fill the bath witli ashrajis, but the moment
MISERS AND SKINFLINTS
I asked you to hit me on the head with my basin, your hearing became
as sharp as could be ! ” The proverb is used as a warning against
greed and also, satirically, to someone who has asked in vain from
A stone is as good as gold for hiding.
This story comes from the Bustan of Sadi. A miser hoarded all
his wealth and spent nothing on his family. But one day his son dis-
covered the hiding-place, and he dug up all the gold and put a large
stone in its place. The money he spent in riotous living. His father
soon discovered liis loss, and was overcome with grief ; but liis son
said cheerfully, “ Gold is for spending, father ; for hiding, a stone is
just as good.”
He eats his cheese in a hottle.
A miser, after much heart-searching, spent a single shahi on a small
piece of cheese to go widi his bread. But as he was about to swallow
it, he thought, “ If I eat this now, I shall have only to spend another
shahi to-morrow. I have a much better idea.” He put the cheese
ha a bottle and corked it up firmly, and whenever mealtime came
round, he tore off a piece of bread, rubbed it on the bottle, and ate it
with great relish. In dais way he was able to make that same piece of
cheese last for years without any further expense.
The potter drinks water from a broken pot.
The lamp does not light its own base.
Both these imply that men are least generous to daemselves and
those nearest to them.
It is easy to be Hatem Tai with the guest's money.
Reference has already been made to Hatem Ta‘i. The proverb
indicates that it is easy to be liberal in speiading someone else’s money.
A dog is better than an oppressor of men.
A verse from Sa'di.
54 PERSIAN PROVERBS
He has hound Shem/s hand behind his hack
Shemr was the murderer of Hosein at Kerbela, and ever since he
has figured as an object of Shi'ite execration in the annual “ passion
plays ” in Moharram. The proverb implies that So-and-so has out-
done Shemr in cold-blooded cruelty.
A knife would not draw his Mood.
Said of a harsh, cold-blooded man.
God knew the donkey and would not give him horns.
Ignorant people are likely to abuse their power. Sa'di wrote,
“ If the donkey had had two horns like the cow, he wouldn’t have
left one man’s stomach unpierced.”
If you hit it again, 1 shall have nothing.
A man had a load of glass vessels on the back of a donkey, and was
taking them out to market through the main gate of a city. An
official stopped him and, smacking the bundle with a stick, asked,
“ "What have you got there?” The man replied, “ If you hit it
again, I shall have nothing.” The proverb implies that there is a
limit to anyone’s power to endure oppression. There may even be
a slight suggestion of “ killing the goose that laid the golden eggs ”.
Couldnt you find a wall lower than ours ?
You are oppressing us because we are the humblest persons you
He who ilUtreats his mother will do worse to another.
You should avoid dealings with a man who permits ill-treatment
of those nearest to him.
When the snake is old, the frog will tease him.
When a powerful man falls, no one has respect for him any more.
MISERS AND SKINFLINTS
Kindness to evil men is as had as injury to pod men.
Sa‘di has two verses which themselves have almost become pro-
verbs : “ Harshness in return for harshness is an act of justice,” and
“ To spare the ravening leopard is an act of injustice to the sheep.”
Snakes hite everyone, cockroaches hite snakes.
A warning to one who torments those weaker than himself
Above every band there are other hands.
Everyone has his superior. An Arabic proverb says, “ Above
every hand is the hand of God, and every oppressor will himself
When the fountain has gone up, it comes down.
Pride comes before a fall.
Winter has passed, hut coal still has a hlack face.
A man’s face is said to be blackened wheir he is shamed. Another
form of the proverb attributes the black face to “ the coal-merchant ”,
and the expression is used by someone who has survived an ordeal,
in spite of the failure of others to help him. A similar idea is implied
in the proverb that follows.
The night in sahle has passed, and so has the night hy the ovenside.
It is related that Soltan Malimud of Ghaznd, having spent the even-
ing in feasting, slept the rest of the night in covers of sable. A poor
beggar also passed the night by the side of the oven. When morning
came the beggar cried out to the soltan, “ The night in sable has
passed, and so has the night by the ovenside ! ” In other words,
although you did nothiirg to help me, you are this morning no better
oif than I am.
6. THE FOLLY OF BOASTING
There is a tendency for proverbs to tilt against existing human failings rather
than to set up new heights for man to attain. So in this section again the
emphasis is on vice rather than virtue. This time we are warned against
the haughty and obstinate, against those who have *' wind in the head ”, who
are “ Arab from the roots” (an odd sidelight on the relations between the
Persians and their Arab neighbours) ; to have dealings with such people is
like “going into a sack with a bear”. Nor is there a good word to be said
for ojficious meddlers, people who “ stick their fingers in the milk ”. As for
the boasters, those who “ throw wind info their sleeves ”, who “ throw dried-up
straw to the wind”, they will soon he exposed. We cannot, so we are
repeatedly xVarned, escape the consequences of our actions. This is a favourite
theme among the classical ivriters, and this fact itself is a refection of its pre-
valence in popular lore.
Itf an ohstinate ass that will gladly die to harm its master.
Compare “to cut off one’s nose to spite one’s face”.
Til let go of the bladder, hut the bladder wont let go of me.
Some friends were out rowing on a lake, and in the distance saw
something floating on the water. One of them said, “ It looks like
a bladder of syrup,” and when the otliers laughed at him, he pulled off
liis coat and jumped into the water in order to fetch it. But when he
got nearer he suddenly realized that it was a bear that had filleii into
the lake and was trying to swim out. He turned away in haste, but
the bear, at its last gasp, grabbed hold of his feet and hung on for dear
hfe. Meanwhile the man’s friends, tired of waiting, called, “ Come
back! What do you want tliat bladder of syrup for? ” “ I’ll let
go of the bladder,”- he retorted, “but the bladder won’t let go of
me.” The proverb is used by someone who is plagued by an
obstinate man or an obstinate problem.
THE FOLLY OF BOASTING
The howl is hotter than the stew.
Said of someone who sticks obstinately to an outmoded opinion,
who is “ more Catholic than the Pope It is sometimes also used
in a sense equivalent to “ Blood is thicker than water.”
A hlind man who sees is better than a seeing man who is blind.
There are none so deaf as those who won’t hear.
The ^oose has only one foot.
Molla Nasr ad-Din one day took a roast goose as a present to a
newly arrived governor. On the way he succumbed to die tempta-
tion of pulling off one of the legs and eating it. When he presented
it to the governor, the latter noticed that one leg was missing. “ "What
has happened to the otlier leg?” he asked. “ In this part of the
world,” said the molla, “ the geese have only one leg. If you don’t
beheve me, look out of the window at the geese by the pond.” The
governor looked out, and sure enough the geese were standing there
on one leg. But just then some boys came along and began to chase
them with sticks. “You liar ! ” exclaimed the governor. “ All those
geese have two legs.” “ If you’d been claased witlr a stick like that,”
retorted die molla, “ you’d have doubled the number of your legs.”
The proverb is used nowadays of someone who obstinately sticks to
a statement, even when it has been proved untrue.
Wherever there is stew, Soyand-'so is the hutler.
Said of an officious person who is always to be found where he is
The onion has mixed itself with the fruit.
Someone has joined a group of people more important than
The mosque is no place to dance.
58 PERSIAN PROVERBS
The mosque is no place to tie one^s donkey.
One must always consider the occasion.
Mint always grows green outside a snake's hole.
Said when a man is always running into someone he dislikes.
Snakes are said to have an aversion to mint. An Arabic saying runs,
“ He is more loathsome than the smell of wild rue to snakes,” a parallel
The colt has gone ahead of its mother.
The part has become more important than the whole. Fools rush
in where angels fear to tread. It is sometimes said of an officious and
sycophantic person, “ Have you only gone ahead in order not to be
Hear a few words from the mother of the hide.
Said caustically to someone who speaks without being asked.
I speak to the door, hut the wall may listen.
If the cap fits, wear it.
Self praise is like chewing cotton-'wool.
Musk is known hy its smell, not hy the shopkeeper's words.
Good wine needs no bush. Compare :
The hide whom her mother praises will do for her uncle.
The lamp has no hilliance in front of the sun.
A pompous man is shown at his true worth in the company of a
great man. Compare :
THE FOLLY OF BOASTING
A fake in the jewellers^ hazaar is not worth a ^rain of barley.
A tall minaret is nothing beside Mount Aluand.
Don^t use words too big for your mouth.
A large stone will never be thrown.
High-sounding threats seldom come to anything.
A hollow drum makes a great noise.
The big drum only sounds well from afar.
Virtues attributed to strangers seldom bear closer inspection.
The ugliest monkey shows off the most.
The meanest people make the biggest claims. Compare :
The goat'herd drinks from the source,
If hid had- some water, hid have been a good swimmer.
It is easy to boast when your claims cannot be disproved. This is
an idea that has inspired a number of stories and proverbs. Compare
the following :
Yazd is far, yards are near.
A man from Yazd came on a visit to Isfahan, and boasted to some
acquaintances that in Yazd he had jumped a distance of ten yards.
One of his hearers observed, “ Yazd is far, yards are near.” Another
story of tile same proverb is as follows : A Yazdi weaver came to
Isfahan to work in a factory and, although he never wove more than
four yards a day, he would boast, “ In Yazd I used to weave ten yards
a day.” At length his employer cried out in exasperation, “ Yazd
is far, yards are near.”
Beiza is far^ nine donkeys are near.
A man from Beiza, on a visit to Shiraz, boasted that in his own
town he had lined up nine donkeys nose to tail and jumped clear
over them. A hearer remarked, “ Beiza is far, nine donkeys are
Here is the hall and here the field.
A phrase used when inviting a boastful man to put his cards on the
table. Many otlrer expressions of the kind are used, including : Here
is the well and here the rope, here is the seed and here the soil, here
is the corpse and here the graveyard, here is the weight and here the
scales, here is the weight and here the counter-weight, here is the
mosque and here the pulpit, here is the goat and here the thief. In
other words, here are all the factors in the case, now prove your
The crow tried to copy the partridges walk and forgot his own.
This story is told by Jami. A crow, being fond of comfort, decided
to move his nest from the fields to a garden. His eye eventually
lighted on one at the edge of the mountains, and in it was a handsome
partridge hopping and strutting among the rocks and trees. The
crow was greatly taken with this way of walking, and decided to
imitate it. But after three or four days he had not only failed to
imitate the partridge successfully, he had also forgotten his own style
of walking. The Bakhtiyaris tell a similar story about a sparrow and
May he who does not see he blind!
Two geese and a tortoise shared a well. One day, as the water was
getting low, the geese decided to fly away to anotlier place. The
tortoise begged them to take him too, and so the two geese grasped
THE FOLLY OF BOASTING
a stick in their beaks and told the tortoise to grip the middle of it
with his teeth. After warning him not on any account to open his
mouth, they took off. People below were astonished at this unusual
sight, and began to shout and comment on it. The tortoise listened
for a while, becoming more and more inflated with vanity, till a
length he could contain himself no longer and cried out, “ May he
who does not see be blind ! ” Instantly he fell to the ground and was
dashed to pieces.
Ifs the same donkey, only his saddle has been changed.
Said of someone who has recently gained a high position — or
sometimes of someone who is wearing a new suit !
A tumUe^down hathAmse doesn’t need ten attendants.
A pennyworth of liver doesn’t need a print taUecloth.
He has no dinner or supper, hut he keeps seven jugs and basins
Three proverbs about people who keep up appearances beyond their
means. The jug and basin is used for washing hands after a meal.
Do not ignore the retribution of your deeds ; you will reap wheat
from wheat, barley from barley.
You may sow thorns, but you won’t reap jasmine.
For what you have done yourself there is no remedy.
I was burnt with the fire that 1 myself lighted.
A miller was hard at work one day, when a demon from the desert
came and sat in a comer of the mill. The miller asked him, “ What
is your name ? ” The demon replied, “ What is your name ? ” The
miller answered, “ I am ‘ I myself’.” The demon said, “ I too am
* I myself’.” The miller tried hard to tlmk of some way of getting
rid of this unwelcome visitor, but could hit on nothing. What he
found especially annoying was that the demon copied everything he
did ; if he drank water, the demon drank water ; if he ate bread, the
demon did so ; if he said something, die demon repeated die exact
words. At last he had an idea. He fetched two basins, one full of
water and the other of kerosene, and placed the first at one end of the
miU. The demon promptly took the basin of kerosene to the other
end. The miller dien laid a box of matches in front of liis basin and,
splashing himself all over, struck a match and held it to his clothes.
The demon went through the same actions, and at once burst into
flames. The other demons in the desert heard his cries and came
running to his aid. “Who did this to you?” they asked. “‘I
myself’ did it,” he cried. “ But why should you do that? ” they
exclaimed. “ I myself didn’t do it, ‘ I myself’ did it,” replied the
demon. “ Well, there’s no remedy for what you have done your-
self,” they retorted ; and they went oif and left him to bum to death.
The proverb is now used of someone who has suftered the effects of
his own foUy, or sometimes too of someone who has fallen into the
trap that he was preparing for someone else.
This is the bread that I haked for myself
Dig a well for no one, for you will fall in first.
The welUdi^ger is always at the bottom of his well.
Finder by finger do not take, lest you lose vat by vat.
A wealdiy merchant, who had made a fortune in tlie sale of oil,
used to instruct his assistant to tip the scales with his finger in the
appropriate direction when buying or selling. “ What is the purpose
of cheating like that,” asked the assistant, “ for die sake of such a small
THE FOLLY OF BOASTING
profit? ” “ Haven’t you heard, my boy,” answered the merchant,
“ that ‘ drops that gather one by one finally become a sea ’ ? ” One
day the merchant decided to journey from his home town of Baku
to Persia, where, so he had heard, oil was fetching a good price. He
packed his oil in vats and set sail with his assistant. On the way he
began to talk of how, with the profits from his business, he would
settle down in Persia, the land of his ancestors, buy a fine estate, and
spend the rest of his days in peace and comfort. The words were
hardly out of his mouth when a great storm began to blow up.
Soon the vessel was being lashed by the waves, and the terrified mer-
chant fell on his knees and began to pray. Just then the captain of the
ship came up, ” Tliis is no time to weep and wail,” he exclaimed,,
” we must find a way to lighten the ship. Our only hope is to tlarow
overboard tliis cargo of oil of yours.” In the extremity of Iris fear the
merchant agreed, and even himself helped the sailors to throw the vats
into the sea. The assistant looked at him slyly and said, “ Finger by
finger do not take, lest you lose vat by vat.”
The Stick of God is soundlessj hut its Mows cannot he healed.
The mills of God grind slowly . , , Compare :
God seizes late, hut seizes harshly.
A single stone is enough for a house of glass.
“ People who live in glass houses . . Since glass was not used
widely in Persia, this may be a reverse importation from Europe.
The line occurs in tlie works of the shcteendi-century poet Zolali of
Khonsar, the complete verse running, “In this world a whip is
enough for a madman, and a stone for a house of glass.”
Everyone drinks the water of his own heart.
Everyone’s life is determined by what is within himself
God lives to each accordini to the measure of his heart
You will take hack with the hand with which you live.
The mud that you throw will fall on your own head.
7. TOO MANY COOKS . . .
We now come to the people who are most commonly the butt of popular wit —
the fools, the incompetent, the man who “ takes the donkey on to the roof’\
who “pounds water in a mortar”, who tries to “ weigh the wind”. Such
a man has obviously “ eaten a donkey s brains It is certain that he will be
left with nothing but “ wind in his hand He might as well “ crack a hollow
walnut” or “ take caraway seeds to Kerman”. “His arrow will strike a
stone ”, and it will be evident to all that he is “ talking with his foot in the
air”. And so we pass on to the improvident, the idlers, the infatuated and
the day dreamers, those who waste their time “cooking raw dreams”, who
“ sleep on all four sides ”, who indeed slumber so long and soundly that “ in
their dreams they see seven kings ”. To those who try to excuse their conduct,
the proverbs have an answer too, for by seeking to justify themselves they will
only give the truth away.
A house with two mistresses will he deep in dust
The village with two headmen falls into ruin.
Two midwives will twist the hahys head.
With two cooks the stew will he salty or tasteless.
A crowded reservoir breaks many jars.
The poet Mas‘tid Sa‘cL Saimaa complaiaed, “ The heart is troubled
when there are two loved ones ; die head is overweighted with
two crowns ; wine in two cups brings drunkenness . . The
Arabs say, “ The ship that has two captains will sink.”
He tried to pick out an eyelash and blinded his eye.
He only made things worse by his incompetence.
Youpe planted half with cottou'-wool, now let me plant the rest
A novice at barbering was shaving a man’s head, and every time
he nicked it he put a little piece of cotton-wool on the spot. The
unfortunate customer, growing restive, asked what was going on.
“ Oh, it’s nothing,” replied the barber, " I’m just planting cotton-
wool.” The enraged customer seized the mirror and, observing his
ridiculous appearance, said, “ All right, leave the rest, I want to plant
silk ! ” The proverb is used when relieving someone of a task fcfr
which he is incompetent.
He is learning hrhering on someone’s hald head.
Said of a novice who is a nuisance to those he practises on.
Hasan seldom went to work, and when he did he went on Friday.
Friday is the Moslem day of rest. The proverb is used of a muddled
and incompetent person.
A mouse could steal groats from his pocket.
Said of an incompetent man.
The fool’s answer is silence.
In the mountains the hear is Avicenna.
Any fool can appear wise where there is no competition.
If you marry the donkey, you must carry its load.
If you associate with a fool, you must be prepared to put up with
The halfwit spoke, and the brainless one believed him.
Only a fool could believe such nonsense.
TOO MANY COOKS . .
Ifs a wise man that laughs at his own iokes.
While there are fools in the world, no one will he in want
A crow was sitting on the branch of a tree with a large piece of
cheese in his beak. A fox came along and began to address him in a
fawning voice. “ May God have mercy upon your respected father !
What a beautiful voice he had ! How moved I was when he closed
his eyes and piped a tune more beautiful than the nightingale’s ! But
why should we grieve? If the fadicr has gone, the son remains.
What pleasure and pride it would be for me if you too would honour
and delight us widr notes like drosc your dear father used to sing.”
The foolish crow fell into the trap, closed his eyes, and opened wide
his beak in order to sing. The cheese fell to the ground, and the fox
seized it and ran off.
A lon^ heard is a mark of folly.
An old scholar one day came upon the following saying in one of
his books of learning : “A beard longer than a hand’s breadth is a
mark of folly.” “ How can this be? ” he said to himself “ What
has a man’s beard to do with his intelligence? My own beard is
several hands’ breadth long, but no one can say that I am a fool.
No, it is the writer who is a fool . . . All the saine, even if the
saying isn’t true, there would be no harm in shortening my beard
to one hand’s breadth.” So he reached for his scissors, but could not
find them in his pen-case. “ Never mind,” he said, “ the candle will
do as well as a pair of scissors.” He grasped his beard tightly one
hand’s breadth below his cliin, and set fire to it with the candle. The
flames soon spread to Iris hand, and with a cry of pain he let go ;
before he could extinguish the blaze, his beard was gone and his face
badly burned. When he returned from hospital, he turned to that
same page and wrote in the margin, “ I have personally tested this
saying, it is quite true.”
Where the heart is, there is happiness.
He has fallen in love with the eyes of the frog.
Some tliirsty merchants in the desert came to a well, but found to
their dismay that when they let a bucket down, it did not come up
again. Several of their number also climbed down, but none of them
returned. One of the merchants bad a sly and clever servant, whom
he instructed to go down the well. The servant naturally refused,
but when the other merchants promised him a great reward, he finally
agreed and, tying a rope round his waist, was lowered into the well.
When he got to the bottom, he found a demon squatting in a comer,
with his eyes firmly fixed on a large frog in the other comer. The
servant immediately bowed low and paid his respects in the most
courteous mamier. The demon said, “ If you had failed to greet me,
like those other mortals, I would have swallowed you whole. Now
I have a question that you must answer correctly before I will let you
take any water. Where is happiness to be found?” Now the
servant had noticed how the demon’s eyes were fixed on the frog,
and he answered, “ Where the heart is, there is happiness.” The
demon was so pleased with this reply that he said to the servant,
“ Bravo ! Now go through diat door into the garden that you will
find, and pick yourself ten pomegranates. Keep tliem carefully, for
in each one you will find treasure enough to keep you for tlie rest of
your days. Then call out to your friends, that they may pull up the
bucket and you widi it.” This is an episode in a much longer story,
the details of which do not concern us here. The proverb is now used
of someone who is infatuated with sometlnng worthless.
What is held in the heart seems good to the eye.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Sa'di relates how a certain
wise man was asked why it was that, although Soltau Mahmud of
Gharn^ had many beautiful slaves in his andarun, he paid none of them
so much attention as he did to his favourite Ayaz, who was no beauty.
He repHed, “ What is held in the heart seems good to tlie eye.”
Leila must he seen through Majnun's eyes.
Leda and Majnun are the heroine and hero of the Persian equivalent
TOO MANY COOKS ... 69
of the Romeo and Juliet story ; several of the great Persian poets
have been inspired by their tragedy.
He hasn’t time to scratch his head.
He hasn’t time to divorce his wife.
These two sayings are used of a man who is too preoccupied to
attend to anything, however important. The story is told of a
Shirazi who married an Isfahani wife. The Shirazis are noted for
their indolence and light-hearted ways, and this man was no exception.
His new wife, a typically shrewd and practical Isfalrani, determined to
* reform him. “ You really mustn’t sit around all day like that,” she
said, “ I’ll find you a nice easy occupation.” So the next morning
she cooked a large bowl of stew and told liim to sit comfortably on
the front doorstep and sell it to the passers-by. When that task was
working satisfactorily, she said, “ Now we must arrange something
for your afternoons.” She gave him a large fodder-bag and said,
“ Walk slowly round the streets, taking care not to tire yourself, and
collect all the dung that you can find.” A few days later she arranged
for him to spend liis evenings cooking beets over the furnace of the
bath-house and selling them to the patrons. So it went on, and after
a week or two the unfortunate Shirazi found every minute of his day
occupied ; “he hadn’t even time to scratch his head ”. One day,
when he was out coUecting dung, he met an old friend and, without
stopping his work, began to complain to him of his hard lot. “ A
wife like that is no good,” replied his friend. “ Why don’t you
divorce her ? ” “I haven’t even time for that,” lamented the Shirazi.^
There is so much trefoil that you can’t see the jasmine.
Said to a man who claims to be too busy to attend to minor
1 Under Islamic law it is sufldcient for a husband to declare three times
before witnesses, “ I divorce her.”
You can't pick up two melons with one hand.
If you have too many preoccupations, you will succeed at none of
them. Compare :
One place is everywhere, everywhere is nowhere.
Shoes wear out with too much running.
When you sang so loud you never thought of the winter.
A nightingale and an ant lived in a garden, tile former on the
highest branch of a tall tree, the latter in a small hole at its foot. The
nightingale spent its days and nights in flying round the garden and
singing, while the ant busied itself in adding to its store. The ant
watched the nightingale flirting with the rose and said to itself,
“ Time will tell a different story.” Autumn came, the flowers
■withered, and the leaves turned yellow ; the nightingale found itself
friendless and hungry. In this predicament it thought of the ant,
and decided to appeal to it as a good neighbour. In all humility it
acknowledged its improvident ways and begged for help. But the
ant said sternly, “ When you sang so loud, you never thought of the
whiter.” And it reminded the nightingale of the proverb :
Every spring has an autumn and every road an ending.
He bought what was useless and sold what was needful.
A certain man sold a piece of land and bought a horse. A friend
said to him, ” You have sold that which gave you barley and have
bought that which will consume it.”
The hride cannot go out if she has no veil.
You must make sure that you have all the faciHties that you need
before you embark on a task.
TOO MANY COOKS . .
You cant mend father' s graue with hits and pieces.
Two brothers came to visit their father’s grave, and found it in
great disrepair. The elder said, “We must put this in order. Go
into that old tomb and see if you can’t find some bricks we can use.”
The younger brother went into the tomb and brought out all the
whole bricks he could find, but they were not nearly enough. He
went a second time and brought a load of the largest broken pieces he
could find, but still there was not enough. The third time he was
obliged to bring an armful of chips and shavings, and as he threw
them down he said, “ You can’t mend father’s grave with bits and
pieces,” The proverb impHes that it is a waste of time to set about
a task with inadequate tools and materials.
A wedding in the bridegroom's house, hut nothing in the bride's.
Said when someone acts without thinking and before the proper
Keep the lamp for darkness.
Don’t waste your possessions. Keep them for when you need
White ^old for a black day.
Something laid by for a rainy day.
You may buy a mouse-'hole for a hundred dinars.
The mouse-hole is a way of escape, and tlae idea is that it is wise to
keep something in reserve, not to burn your boats, and so on.
He is like the servant of the aubergine.
One day Nasr ad-Dui Shah was eating a dish of aubergines and,
turning to his chamberlahi, remarked, “ What an excellent vegetable
the aubergine is!” “Yes, indeed, Your Majesty,” replied the
chamberlain ; “ it is the most delicious of vegetables. It is at once
appetizing, nourishing and tasty.” The next day His Majesty,
having over-indulged his appetite the day before, was suffering from
a stomach-ache and observed, “ What an unpleasant vegetable the
aubergine is . . The chamberlain broke in, “ Yes, indeed, Your
Majesty, the aubergine is the worst of vegetables. It causes wind
and flatulence, it is unwholesome and indigestible.” The Shah
looked at him in astonishment and said, “ Didn’t you tell me yester-
day that the aubergine was an excellent vegetable ? How have you
come to change your mind ? ” “ Your Majesty,” replied the chamber-
lain, “ I am the servant of the Shall, not of the aubergine. Yesterday
Your Majesty praised it and so did I ; to-day Your Majesty con-
demned it, and so did I.” The proverb is used nowadays of a
” sifter of rice ”, an unprincipled person who turns with every wind
He winnows wherever the wind is.
Said of an unprincipled person.
I £we yon advice, and you count Jlies /
A father was giving his son some advice, and was speaking to him
quietly and seriously. But the boy’s mind was elsewhere, and his
father’s words went ” in at this ear and out at that ”. When his
father paused, the boy said, “Father, while you were talking I
counted twenty flies on our donkey’s back ! ” The father’s reply is
used proverbially of an inattentive or obstinate person.
Till the calfhecomes a cow, its mother s heart will turn to water.
A mother undergoes countless sufferings to raise her child. The
proverb is also used more widely to imply that, no matter what you
do, a foolish person can never be expected to improve ; “ the camel’s
tail will reach the ground ” before that will happen.
The rod is sent from Heaven.
TOO MANY COOKS . .
Only a yreen stick will tame the ox and the ass.
Spare the rod and spoil the child. Ordy fear of punishment will
make people do their duty.
An eggHhief becomes a cameUthief.
A small boy stole some eggs from his neighbour and brought them
to lus mother. Instead of scolding him, she took the eggs and cooked
them for dumer. The same thing happened again and again, until
egg-stealing became second nature with the boy. By the time he
was a grown man, he went still further and stole a camel. But this
time he was caught and haled before the qazi, who ordered his hand
to be cut off. The boy cried out in distress, “ You should cut off
my mother’s hand,” and he told the whole story. The qazi thereupon
pardoned him and, sending for his mother, reprimanded her severely.
The proverb indicates that a bad habit will grow worse if it is not
checked at once.
Drunkenness brings truth.
A man who is off his guard gives himself away.
You can’t hide a drum under a blanket.
Shall I believe your oath or the tail of the cock?
A man stole a cock and hid it under his coat. The owner caught
up with hun and asked, “ What are you doing with my cock?”
The tliief began to swear that he had never touched the cock, but the
owner, looking at the cock’s tail protruding from the man’s coat,
said, “ Shall I beHeve your oath or the tail of the cock ? ” The moral,
like tliat of the preceding proverb, is that it is useless to conceal
crime that is obvious.
He cries to the Shah before the beating.
A man was summoned by the Shah, and before he had even entered
the court he began to shout and cry for mercy, saying, “ Overlook
my offence ! Don’t beat me ! ” In fact the Shah, had only sum-
moned him for questioning, but by his actions the man revealed his
Words hut not wind.
Words are mans cud.
Men talk when they have nothing else to do.
Words hrin£ words, as wind brings snow.
A red tongue will destroy a green head.
An unruly tongue endangers the whole body.
What is in the pot will come out in the ladle.
What the heart thinks the tongue will say.
Reticence is a sign of wisdom.
Don't answer until you are pestioned.
He who talks of others will talk of you.
Beware of gossip-mongers. Compare :
You can shut the city gate, hut you cant shut the mouth of men.
We have neither cash for a thief to steal, nor faith for the Deoil
The man who has no ass has no cares over harley and straw,
Two proverbs used to excuse or justify laziness and improvidence,
and the shirking of responsibility. Compare :
TOO MANY COOKS . .
The larger a mans roof, the more snow it collects.
The higger a mans head, the worse his headache.
They don^t steal a saddle from a hareAack ass.
A penniless man has nothing to lose.
Even the Emam Kezas sheep will not pasture before noon.
The Lady Fatima takes care of slovenly women.
A certain merchant, who had two wives, went on a journey. The
elder of the two wives made great preparations for his return, em-
broidermg a beautiful coat of silk and preparing delicious food ; but
she neglected to wash her face or tidy herself. The younger wife’s
present was a coat of the coarsest cloth, and she did no more than sweep
the dirt into a corner of the room ; but she took great care with her
clothes and her appearance. So the merchant valued her gift as much
as the other, and showed it by wearing each in turn.
He placed a hone inside the wound.
A rich man who had injured his leg was taken to an avaricious
surgeon, who bound up his wounds and ordered him to be brought
regularly for attention. The injured man continued thus in great
pain for a long time, until one day the surgeon himself fell sick, and
his son took charge of the practice. The son examined the rich man’s
wound and saw at once that a small piece of bone had lodged inside
it. Once this was removed, the wound healed readily. On the
surgeon’s return, his son told him how he had cured the injured leg,
whereupon his father began to abuse him. “ Do you suppose I
didn’t Imow that bone was there? I put it there myself so that I
might profit for a long time from this rich man’s wealth. But now
in one day you have thrown away our ‘nine-gallon cow’.” The
proverb is used of someone who deliberately spins out a task for reasons
of his own.
76 PERSIAN PROVERBS
We did our share, hut our ancestor let us down.
A rich man fell sick, and his wife, on the advice of her neighbour,
consulted a certain holy man who would, for a suitable sum, pray to
his sainted ancestor to restore her husband’s health. The saint’s
prayers however had no effect, since the next morning the rich man
died. After die mourning was over the widow met the holy man in
the street and reproached liim, saying, “ That was a fine prayer that
you prayed ! My husband died die next day.” The holy man
replied, “I did my share, but my ancestor let me down.” The
proverb is used as an excuse for failing to carry out a task.
Where was your fask for me to Jill with oil ?
A certain man was travelling with two vats of od, and had to go
through a pass that was generally frequented by robbers. At the far
end of the pass was a shrine, and the traveller, before entering the
dangerous spot, prayed to the saint, saying, “ If I reach your shrine
in safety, I will dedicate some of this oil to you.” It so happened
that on this occasion there were no robbers in the pass, and by the
time he reached the shrine the man had regretted Iiis oath, and making
various excuses he continued his journey widiout leaving any of the
oil. A few miles further on his donkey stumbled and fell, and both
the vats were broken. The traveller, supposmg this to be tlie retri-
bution of the saint, cried out in querulous protest, “ Where was your
flask for me to fill?” Like those that precede and follow, diis
proverb is used in reference to someone who makes unreasonable
He has sown millet on his rope,
A neighbour came to borrow a rope from MoHa Nasr ad-Din.
The molla went to look for it, but came back and apologized, explam-
ing, “My wife has sown miUet on the rope.” “ Wliat do you
mean ? ” exclaimed the neighbour. “ How can you sow millet on a
rope ? ” “ Never you mind,” retorted the molla, “ if I don’t want to
lend it I can say that my wife has sown flour on it if I like ! ”
TOO MANY COOKS . .
Hes CIS had as Ali the Faultfinder.
A certain young man drove his wife to distraction by liis constant
fault-finding. One day she devised a plan to forestall all criticism,
by arranging everything in two different ways. So when Ali came
home and complained, “ Why isn’t the front-door shut ? ” she replied,
“ One leaf is shut.” “ Well, it ought to be open.” “ The other
leaf is open.” “ Well, why have you cleaned the house ? ” grumbled
Ali. “ That half is unswept,” replied his wife. “ I told you to pencil
your eyebrows.” “ I’ve done this one,” she answered. “ Why
haven’t you combed your hair ? ” “ I’ve combed this side.” “ Well,
I told you not to paint your cheeks.”. “ But I haven’t painted this
one.” So it went on all evening ; whether he complained about the
food, or the drink, or anything else, she always had an answer for him.
At last he lost his temper and in sheer exasperation cried, “ Well, why
haven’t you swept under my moustache ? ’ ’ The poor wife remained
dumb with mortification, for this was the one thing she had never
8. HONESTY AND FRIENDSHIP
Of an mtrustivorthy man it will he said that “ he hasnt a sound gut in his
stomach ”, “ his henna has no colour”, he is “gravel in ones shoe He
will delude you with false promises, by “ showing you greenery in the
garden ” or by “ giviftg you a rabbit's dreams ” ; he will acquire influence over
you. by “grasping the vein of your sleep ”, He will “ reverse his horseshoes ”
in order to deceive you, as the Turcoman brigands used to do after a successful
raid in order to mislead pursuers. Another person to be despised is the hypo-
crite, the prude, the man who “ sprinkles water on a prayer-carpet On the
reverse side of the picture the proverbs praise harmony and friendship, loyalty,
hospitality, generosity and gratitude.
It is easier to make a promise than to fulfil it.
We three have done our part, now you shake your heard.
One night Shah Abbas disguised himself as a dervish and wandered
through the streets of Isfahan. On his way he met three robbers,
who asked him to join them. It was a very dark night, so dark that
“ one eye could not see another As they walked, they began to
boast to one anotlier of their peculiar skills. The first robber said,
“ If I meet a man but once on a pitch-black night, no matter what
he is wearing, I shall recognize Ifirn the moment I see him again.”
The second said, “ Any lock that I touch, no matter how strong it is,
will open of its own accord.” The third said, “ I can understand the
language of the animals and interpret whatever they say.” The false
dervish said, ” With a shake of my beard I can free any criminal, no
matter how gudty he may be.” Just then a dog barked, and the tlnrd
robber, challenged by his comrades, said, “ He is saying that, wherever
we go to steal, the owner will be with us.” The robbers laughed,
and continued on their way until they came to the royal treasury.
While they were planning to break in, tire dervish said, “ This is a
dangerous task. If the guards wake and catch us, die least that will
HONESTY AND FRIENDSHIP
happen to us is a sound beating.” “ Don’t be scared,” retorted the
robbers, “ we’re so experienced in these matters that ‘ even a jenn
couldn’t get near us’, let alone the Shah and his men.” Then the
robbers scaled the wall and found their way to the strong-room ; the
thief who was skilled at locks opened the door at a touch, as he had
promised, and the three thieves returned to the waiting dervish with
sacks stuffed full of gold and jewels. These they buried outside the
city, planning to return and divide them the following morrdng.
The Shall then hastened back to the palace, and there gave orders for
the recovery of the stolen goods and the immediate arrest of the thieves.
The next morning they were brought before him, and the Shall,
addressing them in a tone of thunder, sent for the executioner. But
the first robber said, “ Your Majesty, four of us were engaged in that
robbery. Three of us have done our part ; now let the fourth shake
his beard.” Shall Abbas, acknowledging that the first robber, by
recognizing him, had, like the other two, fulfilled his claim, pardoned
the three men and gave them posts at the palace. The proverb is now
used when two people agree to carry out a task jointly, and one of
them fails in his imdertaking.
These are like Solomon's promises to the frogs.
One day the frogs presented a petition to King Solomon, saying,
“ O Prophet of God ! We are naked and destitute ; in winter we
freeze with cold, and in summer we roast with heat. Give us a
cloak to protect us from the cold of winter and the heat of summer
alike.” Solomon pleased them with ready promises, but every day
thereafter they gathered before him crying, “ Our cloak ! Our
cloak ! ” and received no satisfaction. So it is that to this very day
you may hear the frogs crying, “ Our cloak ! Our cloak ! ” The
proverb is used of someone who is known to be unreliable in carrying
out his promises.
Make it any colour you like hut that one !
A man gave a coat to a dyer to be dyed blue. But the next day.
when he came for it, the dyer said, “ Blue is an unlucky colour, for it
is the colour of mourning. Let me dye your coat another colour.”
The customer agreed, but every day the dyer had a fresh reason for
suggesting another colour. Finally the exasperated customer ex-
claimed, “ Give me back the coat undyed ; a simple coat can’t take
a hundred thousand colours.” The dyer, who had sold it die first
day, was forced to confess, “ I dipped your coat in the vat of oblivion
and it took the colour of non-ebdstence.” The customer retorted,
“You could have made it any colour you liked but that one ! ” The
proverb is addressed to someone who makes a foolish excuse to conceal
his failure to carry out a promise.
The fox produces hts tail as a witness.
This proverb is used of someone who produces in support of his
claims a wimess who, because of a personal interest in the case, is even
less rehable than the complainant.
He will make a hundred ju^s without a handle.
He will make a hundred knives without a haft.
Both proverbs mean that you can’t believe a word he says.
The/d have ^ot me too, if 1 hadnt been quick.
Two men and a woman plotted to rob Molla Nasr ad-Din of the
cow and donkey he was taking to market. First one of the men
crept up behind him and cut the cow loose from its leadhig string
without the molla noticing. A few minutes later the second man
accosted Molla Nasr ad-Din. “ Why, molla, haven’t you noticed ?
They’ve stolen your cow. I saw the thieves just now beyond that
hill.” “ Then I’ll go and look for them if you’ll please hold my
donkey.” The molla searched for a long time, and at last came back
empty-handed to the same spot, to find that his ass had gone too.
Much upset, he started for home, and saw a woman weeping by the
side of a well. “ What shall I do ? ” she waded. “ I’ve dropped my
HONESTY AND FRIENDSHIP
earring down this well.” “ I’ll get it for you,” exclaimed die gallant
molla, and stripping off his clothes he climbed down the well. Once
again he searched fruidessly, and clambered to the top to find the
woman gone with all his clothes. He picked up his stick and,
whirling it round his head, set off at full speed for home. His family
greeted him with astonishment, but he retorted, “ Don’t say a word,
for the thieves would have got me too if I hadn’t been quick ! ” The
proverb is now used by someone who has fallen victim to trickery.
He reckons like Haji Hadi the codmerchant
A Lori tribesman brought a load of charcoal to a coal-merchant in
Isfahan. The merchant, Haji Hadi, weighed it, and then began to
reckon as follows. “ Your charcoal weighed a hundred ‘ fifties ’,^
right? That makes a hundred and fifty, right? So a hundred and
fifty from half a maund leaves fifty owing to me ! ” The Lor
scratched his head, but couldn’t sec any flaw in the account. “ You
must be right,” he said, “ but what do I get out ofit? ” The proverb
is now used of a dishonest trader.
Under his cup is a saucer.
Wheels within wheels. There is more in this than meets the eye.
The quickwitted die youn^.
A warning to someone who tries to be too clever.
They tripped him with a mehn-'skin.
A certain wealthy amir, who enjoyed good living, lavished all his
favours upon a particular dancing-girl in his troupe, to die great
discontent of the other girls. .Try as they might, they could find no
way to dislodge her from the amir’s affections. But one night they
took advantage of the amir’s drunkenness to slip a melon-skin under
1 In Isfahan a maund (see Glossary) consists of four charaks, each of fifty
units, and so often known as “ fifty ”.
her feet as she was dancing. She fell heavily and injured her leg, and
by the time she was able to dance again, the amir was no longer
interested in her. The proverb is used of someone who has been
duped or made a victim of his own conceit.
The quarrel was over the molla’s quilt.
One night a fight started outside Molla Nasr ad-Din’s house. He
got up, wrapped his quilt round his shoulders, and went to investigate.
As soon as the rowdies saw him, they snatched his quilt and ran off
down the road. The molla went quietly back to bed. “ What was
the matter ? ” asked his wife. “ Notliing,” said Molla Nasr ad-Dm,
“ the whole quarrel was over the molla s quilt. Once they had that,
they made no more trouble.” The proverb is used when someone is
deluded by a mock quarrel or some similar deception. A wise man
in such a case “ hangs on to his quilt with both hands
Our turn to dance will come.
A camel and a donkey were turned loose from a caravan because
they were too exhausted to travel any longer. However, as luck
would have it, they found a valley with excellent pasture, and there
they lived comfortably for a long time. One day a caravan passed
in the distance, and when the donkey heard the bells, he began to
bray. “ Be quiet,” said the camel, “ they’ll hear us and catch us,
and we shall be taken from this fine place.” “ I can’t help it,”
answered the donkey, “ I feel like singing.” The muleteers of the
caravan soon came up, seized both the animals, and took them along
with the caravan. Before long they came to a deep river and, as the
donkey could not cross it by himself, they lifted him on to the camel’s
back. In the middle of the river the camel suddenly started to kick.
“ Keep still,” cried the donkey, " you’ll throw me into the river.”
I can’t help it,” retorted the camel, ” I feel like dancing, and now
it’s my turn.” And witliout more ado he threw the donkey off his
back and left him to drown. The proverb is used by someone as a
warning to a man who has cheated him.
HONESTY AND FRIENDSHIP
A crooked load will not last the journey.
Dishonest practices will get you nowhere.
The snake must he straight to enter the hole.
Honesty is the best policy.
" Praise God neuer made any one fat.
" Praise God never dyed anyone's coat.
Don’t be deceived by hypocrisy.
Hood and cloak do not make the dervish.
A man must not be judged by his outward appearance.
Don't bandage a head that doesn't ache.
Don’t be a hypocrite in order to gain sympathy.
Don't he duped hy the praying of the hermit's cat.
Shah Shojah fourteenth-century ruler of Shiraz, had a great opinion
of a hermit named Emad, who maintained his reputation by a variety
of tricks, of which his most noteworthy was that he had trained his
cat to stand behind him when he prayed and imitate him. Shall
Shoja' took this as evidence of the hermit’s piety, but the poet Hafez
satirized Emad in a lyric ending with the above line. This so incensed
the hermit that, when he came across a verse by Hafez that could be
interpreted as blasphemy, he took it straight to the Shah. On hearing
of tliis, Hafez hastily composed another verse putting the blasphemous
verse into the mouth of a Christian, and thus absolved himself from
blame, since the reporting of blasphemy could not be held to be
blasphemy. The proverb serves to warn one against hypocrites and
” HalvOt halva" does not sweeten the mouth.
Compare “ fine words butter no parsnips
84 PERSIAN PROVERBS
My new sleeve should eat the polou /
One day MoUa Nasr ad-Din. went to dine at a certain house, but
since he was wearing his old clothes, he was put at the foot of the
cloth near the door, and every other guest who came was seated above
him. The next time he went to that house, he wore his best clothes ;
and when he entered and was about to sit in his former place, the
whole gatliering rose to their feet in protest and insisted that he sit
at the head of the cloth next to the host. Soon a large dish of polou
was brought in, and die molla, helping himself liberally, proceeded
to put it into his sleeve, saying, “ My new sleeve should eat the
polou ! ” The proverb is used when people pay more attention to
outward appearance than to inward qualities.
Salt seasons tainted meat, hut what if the salt is tainted?
The Arabs have a proverb, “ If the teacher be corrupt, die world
will be corrupt.”
You cannot clap with one hand.
Two heads are better than one.
When the cat and mouse agree, the grocer is ruined.
The patriotic poet Iraj Mirza used tliis proverb in a satirical poem
on the Anglo-Russian Agreement of 1907 dividing Persia into spheres
Who is lost from sight is lost from the heart.
Distance preserves friendship.
Two contrasting proverbs that may be compared with “ Out of
sight, out of mind ” and ” Absence makes the heart grow fonder.”
A wise enemy is better than a foolish friend.
This widely used proverb comes from Rumi’s Masnavi, where the
following story is told. A wise man was riding along a road, when
HONESTY AND FRIENDSHIP 85
he saw a snake crawling into the mouth of a sleeping man. Too late
to stop it, he seized a club and began to beat the unfortunate sleeper.
The man leapt up, but the rider continued to beat him and drove him
to a tree where a quantity of rotten apples were lying on the ground.
These he proceeded to cram into his mouth, regardless of his protests
and abuse. Then he continued beating him unmercifully untd at last
the wretched man vomited and brought up die snake. As soon as he
saw it, the man fell on his knees and began to praise the rider whom he
had just been abusing. “ But why,” he said, “ didn’t you wake me
first and warn me ? ” “ If I had done that,” replied his rescuer, “ you
would have died of fright on the spot. You would never have load
die strength even to vomit.”
Heart jink a way to heart
Love and friendsliip are always mutual.
A head without love is like a marrow'^plant without fruit.
Sheikh Balia'i wrote, “ The breast that has no love for the fair is
like a sack full of old bones.”
For one yuest the host will hill a cow.
If one counts on the generosity of others, one will not be dis-
The guest is the host's donkey.
The guest must be content with what the host provides. Ferdousi
has a line in the Shahnam^, “ In his own palace the host is king.”
Don't Ireak your host's salt-cellar.
Don’t look a gift-horse in the mouth. Silt is regarded as the symbol
of hospitality. The Persians also say :
Don't count the teeth of a gift-horse.
Hospitality is two^siki
One good turn deserves another. Compare :
The neighbour's howl has two feet.
See that your howl brings hack a pot.
This proverb, which has the meaning of “ One good turn deserves
another,” may be connected with the MoUa Nasr ad-Din story on
A grateful dog is better than an ungrateful man.
Sackcloth " even to me ?
A debtor was brought by his creditors before the q^azi, and his
lawyer privately instructed him to answer the single word “ sack-
cloth ” to any and every question that he was asked. In this way the
qazi and the creditors were soon convinced that he had been driven
out of his mind by his worries, and they let him go. The next day
the triumphant lawyer came to collect his fee, and was greeted with
•the single word “ sackcloth The expression is used in protest
against gross ingratitude.
The reward of good is evil
A rider discovered a snake caught in the midst of a forest fire.
When the snake saw him, it appealed for help, and since the rider was
a God-fearing man, he overcame his fears and, holdmg out his saddle-
bag on the end of a spear, lifted the snake out of the fire. “ Now go
where you will,” he said, ” and in gratitude for your release trouble
mankind no more.” But the snake turned on him, saying, “ I shall
not leave till I have killed you and your camel. You knew that I was
a symbol of evil to men, and yet you ignored the proverb, ‘ Kindness
to evil men is like injury to good men.’ So you must take the conse-
quences. Moreover, I am only copying the practice of men them-
selves. ‘ You will now buy in a moment what you sell all year.’ ”
HONESTY AND FRIENDSHIP 87
The rider protested and said, “ If you can prove to me that this is the
practice of men, I will accept my fate.” Just then a buffalo appeared,
and the snake asked him, “ What is the reward of good?” The
buffalo answered*, ‘ ‘ According to the practice of men it is evil. Every
year I raised calves for my master and gave him milk and butter, but
now that I am old he plans to sell me to the butcher.” The snake
turned triumphantly to the rider, but the latter said, “ According to
law one witness is not enough.” So the snake turned to a tree and
asked, “ What is the reward of good? ” The tree replied, “ Accord-
ing to the practice of men it is evil. I give shade and rest to weary
travellers, and then they tear off my branches to make shafts for axe
and spade." The snake turned once more in triumph to the rider,
but the latter said, “ Life is dear to me. I beg you, find yet one more
witness to support you, and then I will submit without question to my
fate.” The snake then noticed a fox who had been listening to the
conversation, but before the question could be put to him, die fox
cried out, “ Of course the reward of good is evil. Now tell me, what
good has the man done to the snake that he should be rewarded with
evil? ” The man told his story, and the fox asked the snake if he
agreed. “ Yes,” was the reply, “ and here is the bag in which he
lifted me.” “ How ridiculous ! ” said the fox: “ How could a huge
snake like you get into that tiny bag ? ” “I’ll show you,” replied die
snake, and slid back into the bag. The fox cried out, “ When you
find your enemy in bonds, don’t release him,” and the rider, hastily
closing the opening, beat the bag on the ground until the snake was
dead. The proverb is now used when someone returns evil for good.
He whose hand is severed knows the worth of a severed hand.
A thief was sentenced to have his hand cut off. He made not the
slightest complaint, but picked up his hand and went on his way. A
little way off, however, he met another thief who had suffered a
similar penalty, and at once he began to weep and wad. “ Wliy are
you crying now,” they asked him, “ when you didn’t even murmur
Ijefore?” “There was no one who could appreciate my loss,”
replied the thief, “ but this man is able to sympathize with me.” A
similar proverb says :
He whose harvest is hrnt knows the worth of a burnt harvest.
The tooth hurts the body, the tongue hurts the soul
One's own pains are slight when the neighbour knocks.
One should sacrifice one’s self in order to help others.
He has no gruel for himself but he takes stew to his neighbour.
Said of a generous and unselfish man.
p. MAN’S TRUE WORTH
A mans true worth lies in his inward qualities, not in his outward appearance.
Only the heart of the guilty “ boils like garlic and vinegar”, only those who
have something to conceal need to “ keep their face red with slapping ”, that is
to say, keep up appearances. It is true that bad company may corrupt a man,
but he who is had at heart will be “ better known than the unbelief of the
Devil ”. “ Even his dog is better than he is.” He will be recognized hy his
actions, no matter how he may try to hide the truth. On the other hand, the
wise and experienced man will always be respected; his hat is worthy of his
An innocent mm goes only to the foot of the gallows.
Gold in its purity fears nothing from the earth.
He whose account is clear need have no fear of the day of reckon-
The liar is forgetful
The liar shames himself
- The thieving cat runs when you pick up a stick.
A guilty man is always anxious and fearful.
When the pot is open^ the cat forgets its manners.
When the mosque is open, the dog forgets its manners.
An habitual wrongdoer readily succumbs to temptation.
A false lamp gives no light.
A rotten aubergine gets no disease.
A worthless person cannot get any worse.
A mean man is vile company.
A line from a poem by Hafez, in which he complains of the boredom
of drinking without his beloved.
Virtuous company makes you virtuous.
At night the cat is the same as the sable.
At night the ass’s foal is the same as the peacock.
At night a cotton'-seed is the same as a pearl.
Three proverbs comparable with the French “ La nuit tous les chats
Two donkeys together will act alike and smell alike.
A man is known by the company he keeps.
Pigeon flies with pigeon^ hawk with hawk.
This verse from Nezami compares with Farrokhi’s line :
The muleteer goes to the cameTdriver’s house.
That is to say, birds of a feather flock together.
Everything reverts to its origin.
It is useless for a man to pretend to be other than what he is. A
hermit by his magic turned a mouse into a beautiful girl, and wished
to give her in rnarriage. “ I will marry the strongest person in the
world,” she said. So the hermit offered her to the sun, but the sun
said, “ The cloud is stronger than me, for he can hide me from the
man’s true worth 91
eyes of men.” The hermit went to the cloud, but the cloud said,
“The wind is stronger than me, for he can blow me where he wishes.”
So the hermit went to the wind, but the wind said, “ The mountain
is stronger than me, for he always stands firm against me.” So the
hermit went to the mountam, but the mountain said, “ The mouse is
stronger than me, for he can burrow deep into my heart.” So the
hermit went to the mouse, but the mouse said, “ I will only marry
someone of my own kind.” So after all the hermit was obliged to
change tlie girl back into her original form.
The leek springs from its seed and Hasan from his father.
Like father, like son.
The wolf^cuh becomes a wolf though it he raised among men.
A verse from the Gokstan of Sa‘di.
A beggar’s child is always a beggar’s child.
A king was passing through the streets of his capital, when he
observed a beautiful girl begging by the roadside. He gave orders
that she should be taken to his andamn and there trained and educated
in all the arts and graces by the most skilled teachers. Owing to her
natural intelligence she progressed rapidly, and after a year of such
teacliing she was so beautiful and accomplished that the king decided
to take her for his wife. The girl agreed on the one condition that
she should always take her meals alone. The king agreed to this
condition, and the wedding duly took place. Nevertheless, the king
was not long able to restrain his curiosity over the fact that, when meal-
time came, she had the food served in her own room, and would not
touch it untd the servants had gone and she had locked the door.
Determined to probe the mystery, he instructed an old nurse to hide
herself in the girl’s room and to report to him what happened. She
observed that, as soon as the door was locked, the girl took each of the
dishes and placed them in different comers of the room. Then she
stood in front of each in turn and, in die whining tone of a beggar,
said, “ In the name of God, spare a morsel ! ” She then took a moutli-
ful, swallowed it greedily, and passed on to the next dish, where she
repeated the performance. When she was finally satisfied, she put
the dishes hack on the cloth and unlocked the door. When die king
heard this story, he was amazed, and observed, “ The child of a beggar
is always the child of a beggar ! ”
Nature, not spite, ^ives the scorpion its sting,
A tortoise and a scorpion were close friends. One day they set out
to look for a new home, and on their way came to a broad river.
“ How shall I cross diis ? ” exclaimed the scorpion. “ Don’t worry,”
replied the tortoise, “ I wiU carry you safely across on my back.”
When they were half-way across, the tortoise heard the scorpion
moving about, and asked him what he was doing. “ I am trying
out my sting on your shell,” he replied. “ You ungrateful wretch ! ”
exclaimed the tortoise. “ It is true that your sting can never pierce my
shell, but is this the way to repay me for risking my life for you? ”
“ Forgive me,” replied the scorpion, ” but my nature requires that I
should sting, whether it be the back of a friend or the breast of an
enemy.” This story is from the Anvar-e Soheili.
The repentance of the wolf is death.
The leopard cannot change his spots.
If the rustics a governor, the hears Avicenna.
You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.
Every flower has its scent.
Everyone is not driven with the same stick.
What is in the pot will leak from it.
man’s true worth 93
You won’t find fruit on a willowHree.
Vinegar drips from the vinegar far.
A snake rears snakes.
The last four proverbs resemble “ A tree is blown by its fruit.”
The handful is a sample of the donkeyAoad.
A seeing eye is better than three hundred sticks.
Seek the truth from a child.
A child may hit the target in error.
“ Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings . . The Golestm
tells how a king was out hunting and placed his ring upon the top
of a ruined dome. “ This ring to him who shoots an arrow through
it ! ” he cried. Four hundred archers tried and failed. A child was
playing on a neighbouring roof with a toy bow and arrow, and by
chance the wind caught his arrow and carried it through the ring.
The king praised him highly and gave him the ring ; but the boy took
his bow and arrow and burnt them, “ for thus,” he said, “ its first
success will remain unspoiled ”.
Ripeness is in wisdom, not in years.
Youth is too wild to worship God, and age too weak
This line is from Ansari. Attar wrote :
Once 1 had strength hut no wisdom ; now I have wisdom hut
To a wise man a nod is enoa^h.
If anyone is at home^ a word is enough.
One stroke is enough for a nohle horse.
He who has knowledge has power.
This verse comes from the opening lines of Ferdousi’s Shahnami,
and is now used as the motto of the Persian Ministry of Education.
Reasoned words have no answer.
One wise man is a hat for a hundred hald heads, and a stick for
a hundred blind men.
The Lord Ali knows where to lead the camel.
A Shi'ite and a Sunnite were disputing. The Shi'ite said, “ On the
Day of Resurrection Ali will go to Heaven and Omar to Hell.”
“ You are wrong,” said the Sunnite. ” On the Day of Resurrection
Omar will mount a camel, and Ali will go on foot and lead it to
Heaven.” ” If Ali is the camel-driver,” retorted the Shi ite, “ he
will know where to lead it.” The proverb is used to express confi-
dence in one’s own ability to perform a task ; “ leave it to me, and
nothing will go wrong ”. For the Slii'ite and Sunnite views of Ali
and Omar, see the Glossary.
Dont go to the doctor, go to the man who knows.
Still waters become stagnant.
The kabob must be turned to cook.
Both proverbs imply that travel is necessary for a man to gain
wisdom and experience. The Koran says, “ Travel through the earth
man’s true worth
and. observe the fate of those before you ” (xxx. 41). Many Persian
poets have written on this theme, and Anvari’s line among others has
become proverbial :
Trauel ripens a man.
They have killed the camel.
All is over.
Ali Akbar Debkliod^, AmsM va Hekam (Proverbs and Sayings), 4 vols.,
Amir Qoli Amini, DasthM-e Amsdl (Proverbial Tales), 2 vols., Isfahan,
Yusef Rahmati, Farhang-e Ammiyani (Colloquial Dictionary), Tehran,
AbbSs Mohtashera Nuri, Ainsdl~e Englisi hc-Fdrst (English Proverbs in
Persian), Tehran, 1944,
Sobhi Mohtadi, Afsdndhd-e Kohan (Old Fables), Tehran, 1949.
D. C. Phillott, Persian Saws and Proverbs (Memoirs of the Asiatic Society
of Bengal, Vol. I, No. 15, pp. 302-37), Calcutta, 1906.
J. L. Burckhardt, Arabic Proverbs, London, 1930.
Carlo Landberg, Proverbes et Dictons du Peujrle Arabe (Vol. I), Leiden,
Ahmad Taimur Pasha, al-Amthal alAamtntya (Popular Proverbs), Cairo,
E. J. Davis, Osmanli Proverbs and Quaint Sayings, London, 1898.
Aesop’s Fables, a new version by the Rev. Thomas James, M.A., London,
Bess AUen Donaldson, The Wild Rue, a study of Muhammadan magic
and folklore in Iran, London, 1938.
D. L. R. and E. O. Lorimer, Persian Tales, London, 1919.
Mashdi Galeen Khanom and L. P. Eiwell-Sutton, The Wonderful Sea-
Horse and Other Persian Tales, London, 1950.
(Dates are a.d., unless otherwise stated)
Abbas, Shah (reigned 1587-1629), was one of the most famous of the
Safavid rulers of Persia, and contemporary of Queen Elizabeth
and the Mogul Emperor Akbar, with both of whom he corre-
sponded. During his reign Persian art and architecture reached
new heights, and his capital at Isfahan became renowned in Europe
from the descriptions of the many travellers who visited it.
Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad through his marriage
to the latter’s daughter Fatima, is revered throughout the Shi’ite
world, sometimes even more than the Prophet himself. He was
assassinated in 656. See the note on Shi‘ism.
Alvand (12,290 ft.) is situated some forty miles south of Hamadan, in
Andabun : the inner part of a Persian house, reserved for the women-
folk and the closest male relatives.
Ansari (1006-88) was bom in Herat, and was one of the earlier Persian
Anushirvan (reigned 53 1-78) is known to history as “ the Just One
of the later Sasanid rulers of Persia, he is remembered for his success-
ful campaigns against the Roman Empire and for his reorganization
of the country’s administration, finances and agriculture.
Anvar-e Soheili : a somewhat ornate version of the book of Kalili va
Demni (<j.v.), composed by the theologian Hosein Va‘ez-e Kashefi
in the fifteenth century.
Anvari (twelfdi century) spent most of his life in Merv and Balkh in
Turkestan, and is generally regarded as one of the greatest of the
Asadi (eleventh century) is chiefly known for his epic poem, the
Garshasp-nam^, and for his Persian lexicon.
Ashrafi : a gold coin of the eighteenth century, equivalent to a
Attar (d. c. 1230) was one of the greatest of the Persian mystical poets,
among his hest known works being the Manti^ at-Tair (the Language
of the Birds).
Avicenna, more correctly known as Abu Ali ibn Sina, was bom about
980 and died in 1037, Equally famous as philosopher and
physician, he was one of those who carried on the tradition of
Greece and transmitted it to the Islamic world and Europe.
Bakhtiyari : a large tribe occupying the mountainous area between
Isfahan and the head of the Persian Gulf.
Baku : a city on the western shore of the Caspian Sea in what is now
Soviet Azerbaijan. It has been noted for centuries for its oil
Balkh : a city in Afghanistan near the Russian frontier, it is reputed to
be one of the oldest in the world.
Beiza : a district some twenty-five miles to the north of Shiraz in
Bozorgmehr : Grand Vizier to Anushirvan (q.v.) and initiator of many
of his reforms.
Bustan : one of the poetical works of Sa'di.
Chengiz Khan (1162-1227) began his career of world conquest in 1219,
and at liis death his empire extended from the borders of China to
Iraq. His sons and' successors swept across Russia into Poland and
Hungary. Chengiz’ ruthlessness and disregard for human life are
Dajjal : the false Messiah or Antichrist who is to appear before the
Day of Resurrection.
Demne : V. Kalild va Demn6.
Dervish ; a reHgious mendicant, generally belonging to one of a large
number of orders, and distinguished by special costume and
Dinar : one of the smallest units of Persian currency. Formerly one
thousand, now one hundred, go to the rial (q.v.).
Emam : according to Shi'ite doctrine the succession to the Prophet was
carried on through his lineal descendant, Hosein, son of Ali and
Fatima, and his children. These constitute a line of emams (some
say twelve, some seven), the last of whom is said to have disappeared
and will return at the end of the world.
Farrokhi (tenth century), one of the first great poets of Moslem Persia.
Fatima, daughter of the Prophet Muhammad (he had no surviving male
progeny), married one of his early adherents, Ali (q.v.).
FerdoUSI (932-1020), Persia’s greatest epic poet, wrote the Shahnami
(Book of Kings), containing in some 60,000 couplets the legendary
history of Persia from the earliest times to the Arab conquest.
Ghazn^ : a city in Afghanistan, about a hundred mdes south-west of
Kabul, and at one time the capital of Soltan Malimud (q.v.).
Goiestan : the most famous of Sa'di’s worb, containmg anecdotes in
prose and verse covering every aspect of life.
Hafez (d. 1389) spent his whole life in Shiraz, and is considered to be
Persia’s greatest lyric poet. His poetry may be interpreted literally
or mystically, and his Divan (Collected Poems) is popularly used
for the taking of auguries.
Halva : a sweetmeat composed of flour, butter and sugar.
Hatem Ta'i : a legendary Arab chief celebrated in pre-Islamic poetry
for his generosity.
Hosein : the younger son of Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet, he was
killed at the battle of Kerbela in 680, an event that is still mourned
annually throughout the Shi'ite world.
Huri : one of die beautiful maidens who will minister to the faithful
Iraj Mirza (1874-1925), a prince of the Qajar dynasty that ruled Persia
during the nineteenth century, is remembered for his patriotic and
satirical poetry, and for his progressive ideas.
Ispahan : the second largest city in Persia, and formerly the capital.
It has long been a centre of industry and craft, and owes much of
its beauty to Shall Abbas (q.v.).
Jami (1414-92), one of the last great Persian poets, was famous also as
a mystic and a scholar.
Jerjis : St. George, who is included by Islam among the prophets.
Jenn : spirits said to be present everywhere, and generally ill-disposed
or at any rate in need of propitiation.
Kabob : a cube of meat tlireaded on to a skewer or spit and roasted
over a charcoal brazier.
Kaihe va Demne : a Persian version of the Fables of Bidpai or Pilpai,
translated by Nasrollah of Ghaznd in the middle of the twelfth
century from the Arabic of Ibn al-Muqaffa*, who himself translated
it from the Pahlavi in about 750. The Pahlavi translation was made
during the reign of Anushirvan from the original Sanskrit, but is
no longer extant.
Kei Kavus : a legendary king of Persia, possibly to be identified with
the Median king Cyaxares (633-584 B.C.).
Kerbela : a holy city in Iraq, 100 miles south of Baghdad, and the
scene of the death of Hosein (q.v.) in 680.
Kerman ; a city in soudi-eastem Persia, 300 miles west of Shiraz.
Khonsar : a town in central Persia, 100 miles north-west of Isfahan.
Kurd : a tribe occupying the western and north-western areas of Persia.
Many Kurds are also to be found in Iraq, Turkey and Syria.
Leila : the heroine of a famous love-story, treated by Nezami and other
poets. Like Juliet, she was forbidden by her family to see her
lover, who as a result lost his reason — ^whence his name Majnun
(q.v.) — and wandered into the desert. Leila followed him, but
was caught by her own people before she could save him.
Lor : a tribe occupying the western areas of Persia, between the Kurds
and the Bakhtiyaris (q.v.).
Mahmud, Soitan (reigned 998-1030) : had his capital at Ghazn6, and
conquered much of Persia, India and other lands. He also patron-
ized many of the famous men of letters of the time.
Majnun : the “ maddened one ”, hero of the story of Leila and Majnun
Masnavi : striedy speaking, any poem composed in rhymed couplet
form ; the name is especially applied to the great allegorical poem
of Jalal ad-Din Rumi (q.v.).
Mas'ud Sa‘d Salman (d. 1121 or 1131) was an early poet of dis-
Maund : a weight varying in different parts of Persia from six to
twelve pounds, the latter in Isfahan.
Mazandaran : a province of Persia bordering the southern and south-
eastern shores of the Caspian Sea.
Moharram : the first month of the Moslem (lunar) year, and the month
in winch Hosein was killed at Kerbela. His death is still re-enacted
during this month by pious Shfites.
Molla : a Shi'itc religious dignitary corresponding as nearly as may
be to the village priest (though no priesthood as such exists in
Nader Shah (reigned 1736-47) united Persia for a brief period, and
extended his conquests into India.
Naser ad-Din Shah (reigned 1848-96), the fourth ruler of the Qajar
dynasty, was the first reigning Shah of Persia to visit Europe — in
1873, 1878 and 1889.
Naser-e Khosrou (1004-88), a noted traveller and poet.
Nasr ad-Din, Molla : a fictitious comic character, about whom many
stories are told illustrating rustic simplicity and logic. In Turkey
he is known as Hoca Nasrettin, and in Egypt as Goha.
Nezami (1141-1203), one of Persia’s greatest mystical and romantic
poets, was bom in Ganje, in what is now Soviet Azerbaijan.
Omar : the second of the Orthodox Caliphs, or successors of the Prophet
Muhammad. He is not recognized by the Shi‘ites, who execrate
PoLOU : a dish of rice, vegetables, chopped meat or chicken, etc.
Qazi : a magistrate responsible for administering the Islamic law, by
which all justice was guided until recent times.
Reza, Emam (d. 816): the eighth of the Emams according to the
orthodox branch of the Shfites, who recognize twelve in all. He
is buried in Mashliad, in the north-east of Persia, where his shrine
is next in importance to Kerbela as a place of pilgrimage.
Rial : a coin worth at present about i^d., but considerably more in
earlier times. The name is derived from the Spanish real
Rostam : a legendary Persian hero. The story of his fight with his son
Sohrab is told in brief on page 31, and is known to the English-
speaking world through the version by Matthew Arnold.
Rumi, Jalal ad-Din (1207-73), possibly the most famous and revered
of all Persia’s mystical poets. His monumental Masnavi is some-
times known as the “ Persian Koran
Sabzevar : a town in the nortli-east of Persia, about 150 miles west of
Sa’di (1184-1291) travelled widely during his lifetime, falling captive
to the Crusaders at one time, and returned in his old age to his
native town of Shiraz, where he set down in writing his accumu-
lated experience and knowledge.
Safar : the second month of the Moslem (lunar) year.
Sana'i (c. 1045-1141), one of Persia’s most distinguished mystical poets.
His best known work is the Hadiqat al-Haqiqa (the Garden of Truth),
Saved : a man claiming descent from the Prophet through his daughter
Fatima, and entitled to wear a green sash.
Sedeh : a village near Isfalian, whose inhabitants are noted for their
Shahi : a coin worth half a rial (q.v.).
SHAHNA\d : the Book of Kings, the great epic poem composed by
Sheikh Baha’i (1546-1622) was bom in Syria and came with his father
to Persia as refugees from Suimite persecution. He wrote a number
of theological works and poems.
Shemr : the man held responsible by the Shi’ites for the death of Hosein
Sm’iSM : Islam divided at an early date into two great sects, die Shi’ites
and the Sunnites. The dispute originally arose as one of succession
to the Prophet, the Sunnites holding that the Caliphs should be
elected, as were the first four, Abu Bakr, Omar, Othman and Ali,
while the Shi’ites supported the claims of Ali’s sons as the direct
descendants of the Prophet through his daughter Fatima. The
dispute flared up after the death of Othman, when Ali was chal-
lenged by Mu’awiya, who established himself as Caliph m Damascus.
After Ali’s assassination in 656, his sons Hasan and Hosein continued
his claim ; the former abdicated in 661, and the latter was slain on
the battle-field of Kerbela in 680. Shi’ism subsequendy became
a vehicle for the discontents of the under-privileged, and for Persian
nationalism and religious ideas. Its adherents are now largely
concentrated in Persia (where it is the State religion) and Iraq.
Shiraz : a city in south Persia, birthplace of Sa'di, Hafez and other
Shoja , Shah (reigned I357~84), the second of the Mozaffarid dynasty,
who ruled over Yazd, Kerman, Shiraz and Kurdistan. He was a
patron of the poet Hafez.
SoHRAB : a legendary Persian hero (v. Rostam).
Sunnite : an adherent of one of the two major divisions in Islam, the
other being the Shi'ites (q-v.).
Tatar : a general term for the Turkish and Mongol inhabitants of
Tehran: tlie capital of Persia since 1794. It lies about 100 miles south
of the Caspian Sea, from which it is separated by the Elborz
Mountains, and has at present a population of about 1,000,000.
Tuman : a coin equal in value to ten rials.
Turan : the legendary enemy of Iran, and evidently to be identified
with the Turks of Central Asia.
Turcoman : a name given to the nomadic inhabitants of Turkestan,
who in the past frequently raided over the border into the Persian
province of Khorasan in the north-east.
Vaqf : property administered as a religious endowment or trust, for the
upkeep of a mosque or shrine, or in general for the benefit of the
Yazd : a city in south-east Persia, the main centre of the now almost
extinct Zoroastrian community of Persia.
ZoLALi (d. 1615), a comparatively undistinguished figure in Persia’s
more recent literary history.
Zoroaster : the founder of the ancient religion of Persia, his traditional
dates are 660-583 b.c. His teaching included the doctrine of the
perpetual conflict between good and evil, between light and dark-
ness — whence the erroneous assumption that it involved sun-
worship. Zoroastrianism was largely displaced by Islam (though
the Persian form of Shi'ism incorporated many of its doctrines),
but it has survived in Yazd and in the Parsi community of Bombay.
Books of similar interest in
The Wisdom of the East Series
ARABIC and PERSIAN POETRY
HAFIZ OF SHIRAZ. Thirty Poems translated by Peter
Avery and John Heath-Stubbs.
THE PERSIAN MYSTICS. The Invocations of Sheikh Ab-
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THE DIWAN OF ABU’L-ALA. By Henry Baerlein.
ARABIC and PERSIAN PHILOSOPHY
AN ARAB PHILOSOPHY OF HISTORY. Selections from the
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the gratitude of the English-speaking world by introducing
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greatest Arab sages." — Truth.
AVICENNA ON THEOLOGY. Translated by Professor A. J.
Arberry, Litt.D. “ Professor Arberry’s little book is a
worthy tribute from the Western world to a genius which is
truly described as that ' of one of the profoundest and most
courageous thinkers in history.’ ” — Truth.
THE SPIRITUAL PHYSICK OF RHAZES. Translated from
the Arabic by Professor A. J. Arberry, Litt.D. “ The
Introduction could hardly be bettered. It tells readers
exactly what they want to know, clearly and without a word
being wasted, with chamr as' well as learning.” — Journal
of the Royal CentrayAsiari
THE MYSTERIES OF SELFLESSNESS. By the late Sir
Muhammad Iqbal. Translated by Professor A. J.
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General Titles in
The Wisdom of the East Series
LITERATURES OF THE EAST : An Appreciation. Edited by
Eric B. Ceadel. With an Introduction by Professor
A. J. Arberry, Litt.D. ” This work is a valuable intro-
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EASTERN SCIENCE. An Outline of its Scope and Contribu-
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proved splendidly equal to the task ; a thoroughly satis-
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THE GLAD TIDINGS OF BAHA’U'LLAH. Extracts from the
Sacred Writings of the Bahd’is, with an Introduction and
Notes by George Townshend, M.A. “ Enlightened and
useful.” — Aryan Path.
MANIFOLD UNITY. The Ancient World's Perception of the
Divine Pattern of Harmony and Compassion. By Collum.
ONE IN ALL. An Anthology of Religion from the Sacred
Scriptures of the Living Faiths. Compiled by Edith B-
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Palmstierna. ” A thoughtful and judicious selection.” —
CEHTEAL AECHAEOLOeiQAL LIBRARY,